The Power of Play

Published Jan 22, 2018 | Updated Feb 19, 2020

Play is important for a developing child, because simply put, play is practice. Oftentimes kids are learning valuable life skills without even realizing it! As parents, there's certain games we can use to leverage playtime.

You’ve seen it:  six-week old kittens pouncing, chasing, and stalking each other.  It looks like raucous, crazy fun, and it is.  Kittens and other young animals play as soon as they’re physically ready, and keep it up as long as they can. 

Why Play?

Behaviorists think that playtime for young animals prepares them for adulthood.  Playing teaches those same skills that the babies will need as they grow older and learn to hunt for themselves – stalking, pouncing, and chasing.

For prey animals like deer, play works their flight muscles, sharpens the senses that helps detect predators, and prepares them for the deer-to-deer fighting that will occur during mating season.

Play, simply put, is practice. 

Why Leverage Playtime?

Given the incredibly lengthy juvenile period of us humans, we’d better come to grips with play and use it to our advantage!  (We’re talking 18 years here, folks.)

We have to dance between two seemingly opposing desires:  (1) to allow our kids free expression to become the people they are meant to be, and (2) to insure their well-being by keeping them safe and teaching them lessons that will help.

I’m going to propose a few games that will allow you do to both.

Game:  "You Do This and I’ll Do That"

All games teach negotiating skills.  Humans, unlike lions, will tend to thrive more in a crowded world if they can get along with everybody, recognize the needs of others, and negotiate for what they want.  They may even have the experience, as I have, of finding their roles reversing at work.  They may become the boss of their former boss. How will that work out for them?

Let’s say your five-year-old approaches you with a toy sword and wants to play (assuming that you don’t have a problem with this kind of play). Whether or not he verbalized it, he is saying, “I’ll pretend I’m going to kill you and you pretend I can.”  You’ll have a great time chasing each other around, but let’s ramp it up with some word play, too.

You can say, “Oh, you want to kill me? Great! Then I’m going to kill you back right after I die, okay?” Then run off like you’re running for your life.  Have some great time developing those large-muscle skills and dodge all over the house and yard, if you want to. Laugh a lot – it’s great for developing lung power and stamina (even singing). 

When you let him stab you, make a great dramatic play of croaking.  Then get up, grab a weapon, and have at it, laughing the whole time.  If he doesn’t die on cue, you can always say, “Oh, but dying is the best part!” Show him how to make an MGM production out of dying with flair. 

The key to all of this is that you and he both know that this is play.  If you start giving him a lecture about God, and death, and nonviolence, you’re going to become really boring and will dampen his natural enthusiasm for life.  (Or – make him lose interest in playing with you in particular.)  He needs to know that it’s okay to live to the fullest, have a great life, and give up the ghost with enthusiasm for what he lived (at some point).  And teaching him how to use words has just given him an incredible boost towards getting along, stating what he wants, listening to a counteroffer, and getting what he wants in the long run.

Suppose your daughter wants to play with your $500 pearls.  You can say, “Oh, you want to play Rental?  Okay, let’s think about this. These pearls are very expensive and I can only afford to rent them for a high price under special conditions.  Do you think you can do what I need you to do?”

I see a lot of parents saying, “Don’t play with that – it’s expensive!”  The child needs to learn that all of life is a give-and-take.  By verbalizing that you care about the pearls, the child will eventually learn that different things have different prices because of the value that people put on them.  

For example, you can say, “Tell you what … you can rent these pearls for 60 seconds if you pay me five M&M’s and promise to treat them exactly the way I tell you while you have them. Do you want to play?”

This gives you the chance to teach something to your daughter that a flat-out NO just won’t do. (Of course, if your kid is too young to do this, you’ll know, and you’ll just keep certain things out of sight or use distracting techniques if the kid expresses interest.)

So, if the daughter agrees, tell her the rules, then tell her to go get the M&Ms, or dimes, or whatever you’re using, and when she comes back, repeat the rules.  In the meantime, you’ve set your cell phone alarm to ring at the end of the rental period.

Here are some rules I would impose:  “You can hold these pearls in your hand or put them around your neck for 60 seconds.  If you put them around your neck, you must let me help you.  During the 60 seconds, you will keep your body very still and be very gentle with the pearls.  You will stay in this spot the whole time, and you will tell me what you like about the pearls, how pretty they make you look, and what other kinds of jewelry you like.  When the timer goes off in 60 seconds, you will give me the pearls back, I will give you four of the M&Ms back, and I will eat the other.  Do you agree to these rules?”

When she agrees, you have 60 seconds to play Rental together.  At the end, she give the pearls back, she only gets back the agreed-upon number of M&Ms, and you get your M&M.  You then explain the concept of rental fees and rental deposits.  Just so she doesn’t feel bad about giving up the fee, tell her, “Congratulations! You won your first game of Rentals! Yay!”  Then put away the pearls and go do something fun together like play bubbles.  As she gets older, you can adjust the game so she gets to play with them longer, and with continued supervision – obviously! If she’s too young to handle 60 seconds, you can adjust the time down to 10 seconds, and instead of using the cell phone timer, you’ll just use a countdown clock and ring a gong or blow a whistle when the timer shows that her time is up.  (By the way, teaching a young child to hold an object for 10 seconds is also a great way to teach a child to relax – another important life skill.)

These games might push some buttons because I’m suggesting that life-or-death games are okay and so are games with expensive belongings.  But I think the value of introducing kids to taboo subjects in a safe way outweighs the risk of introducing “dangerous” ideas or exposing property to possible destruction.  Done in a carefully thought-out way, the safeguards are built in.  You can break barriers safely and carefully, allowing the kids more power and more autonomy as they grow.

You can invent your own variations that align with your values.  And this is only Game #1.  There are lots more.  You’ll invent them as you go, ’cause you have smarts, experience, and a genuine love for your child.

Andrea Robinson
By Andrea Robinson
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