Families Who Play: Why It Matters


It is 5pm… Dinner needs to be served. You are just getting home from work. Nighttime routines need to be started …

Play, at that moment, might be the last thing on your mind. In our fast paced, goal-driven society, we can easily overlook the purpose of play. Often, there is a belief that children must be accomplishing a goal or working toward something that an adult deems appropriate.

Research on the purpose of play tells us otherwise. Play is a child’s first language. Play provides adults the opportunity to connect with children verbally and nonverbally. Research highlights the positive effect play has on family relationships. A large-scale study identified six core characteristics of strong families:

  • Commitment
  • Appreciation
  • Communication
  • Playing Together
  • Spiritual Wellness
  • Coping Skills

Play is an avenue and tool that families can use to strengthen these areas.

How, you ask? Let me explain…

Commitment: When you carve out a consistent play time and provide unwavering attention, your child will feel your commitment. Avoid distractions so you can remain attentive to your child (cell phones included). Uninterrupted, fun and playful time together will result in greater cohesion and understanding between you and your child.

Appreciation: Appreciation between a child and caregiver will strengthen in response to a caregiver remaining attuned and reflective in play. Your child will feel a sense of mastery in their play and in their relationship with you. Your child will feel delighted and appreciated in response to receiving your undivided attention. You will also experience a sense of appreciation.

Communication: It has been said many times over that play is the first language of children. Take yourself back to when you were a child. As a child, your imagination, your dreams, your thoughts, and your feelings came to life in the form of play. This is also true for the children in your life. They communicate thoughts, feelings, and even moments of conflict in their play. Metaphors, stories, and symbolic play often unfold. Are you ready to listen? Your children are ready for you to join them!

Fun Time Spent Together: Play is fun! Laughing, drawing, being outside, imagining, creating, understanding each other, acting, singing, being silly, and joining in play together is emotionally healing and bonding for you and your child. The attunement and attachment that play promotes is healing for children.

Spiritual Wellness: Play is a form of wellness. In playing with your child, you can incorporate different facets of wellness. You can learn yoga together, practice deep breathing and mindfulness. You can explore the outdoors, taking in its beauty and vastness. Depending on your spiritual preferences, you can incorporate play into your spiritual wellness. Play possibilities are everywhere!

Coping Skills: Play can provide opportunities for a child’s coping skills to grow. Children will face multiple opportunities to practice conflict resolution skills. For example, a 3 year old becomes frustrated with the block that won’t fit in the slot. A 10 year old plays out heroes vs. villains. In these circumstances, resist your urge to take over the play and instead remain patient and encouraging. Where appropriate, wonder out loud about the play. Observe out loud to the child, the feelings and themes being presented in the play. In these moments, your child’s security in their relationship with you will grow. So will their ability to self-regulate and create a strong sense of self.

Plato has been quoted as saying “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” So why not take the chance to sit down with your child and discover more about them? In turn, you will strengthen commitment, appreciation, communication, fun, spiritual wellness, and coping skills. This will ultimately reflect into the betterment of your family.

I tried to teach my child with books.
He gave me only puzzled looks.
I used clear words to discipline,
But I never seemed to win.
Despairingly, I turned aside.
“How shall I reach this child?” I cried.
Into my hand he put the key:
“Come,” he said, “Play with me.”

Author Unknown. Adapted by Aletha Solter.

Further Recommended Reading
Play Therapy Skills I Use in Parenting:
Article highlights – Tracking, Reflecting, Following Lead of Child, Promoting Mastery in play

Special Play Time – An Important Way for Parents to Spend Time with their Children
Article Highlights – What is Special Play Time; What Parents do during Special Play Time; Examples of how to describe play, identify feelings, joining in play, What not to in special play time, etc.

Amy VanDusen, LICSW works with children, teens and families in our Upper Valley and New London office. Amy has specialized training in Play Therapy and Child-Parent Psychotherapy. Amy strives to create a collaborative, warm, and comfortable environment and tailors therapy to the client’s unique needs.

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