Playtime 101 for Parents: Intentional Play Helps Strengthen Family Bonds

Playtime 101 for Parents: Intentional play helps strengthen family bonds

By Brittany Carlson


Playtime comes naturally for kids, but not always for parents. 


However, learning to join in during a child’s play – and resisting the temptation to lead or correct a child’s way of playing – can strengthen family bonds and helps parents get to know their children on a deeper level, according child therapists.  


“A child’s first language is play,” said Andrea Abbott, a registered child therapist and licensed clinical social worker. “When parents engage their children in play, it strengthens the parent-child relationship and fosters connection. 


“During play, children can express their feelings and use play as an outlet to be heard,” she added. “Parents can get a better sense of their child’s needs and views and accept the uniqueness of their child.”


Through her business, Healing Hearts Therapeutic Services, Abbott and her staff offer Child-Parent Relationship Training to teach parents how to incorporate intentional, one-on-one playtime into their daily routine to help improve a child’s self-confidence. 


“Research shows children needing 15 to 20 minutes a day of undivided adult attention, participating in an activity of their choosing,” Abbott said. 


During this special playtime, the child chooses the activities and leads the parents in what to do, Abbott said. 


Jennifer Leary, an occupational therapist who uses play therapy with children, offers some activity recommendations by age group:


  • Infants: rattles, mobiles, playmats, mirrors, crib toys, infant swings, teething toys, busy boxes, squeeze toys
  • Toddlers and preschoolers: blocks, stacking rings, pegboards, shape sorters, push and pull toys, balls, books, sand and water toys, large beads, movement games, toy cars and trucks, train sets, musical toys
  • School-aged children: building sets, books, bicycles, roller skates, ice skates, board games, checkers, beginning sports
  • Middle schoolers and adolescents: athletics, books, hobbies, crafts, electronics

“Look for what your child seems to be drawn toward,” O’Leary said. “Perhaps he or she loves musical toys or light-up objects. Use what you observe to pick the play activities you share.”


During the activity, Abbott said parents can encourage their child by reflecting, or mimicking, the child’s play back to them, rather than trying to guide the play.


“Let the child lead the play,” she said. “It validates the child’s perceptions of their experiences.” 


“For instance,” she said, “when a child is playing with a specific toy, such as a firetruck, and they call it an airplane, it is important not to correct them. Giving the child freedom to express themselves as they see fit in play is imperative to foster a trusting and communicative relationship with parents.”


Children use playtime to process the events of the day, to deal with problems that may be troubling them and to relive moments that mean a lot to them, Abbott said. While they may have a hard time expressing thoughts and emotions verbally, they express themselves “instinctively” through play. 


When parents refrain from evaluating or judging play, they create a safe environment for their children to express feelings, she added. 


This play model is based on the Child Parent Relationship Therapy Treatment by Sue Bratton and Gary Landreth. 


According to Bratton and Landreth, when parents focus on their child’s character and feelings during playtime instead of on behaviors, this helps their child build self-esteem and learn self-control.  


Finally, parents can maximize this playtime by setting aside their to-do list, electronics and work assignments and simply enjoying themselves, O’Leary said. 


“It doesn’t matter how busy you are; don’t sacrifice playtime with your child,” she added. “When a child gets full, undivided attention, he learns he is valued, and he will grow up valuing others.”