How to Play with your Kids

Oct 01, 2023

Let me ask you two very important questions. Answer honestly (but don’t worry – you don’t have to tell anyone your answers)!

  1. Do you *like* playing with your kids?
  2. Do you feel like you readily know *how* to play with your kids?

If you answered “no” to either of those questions, you are certainly not alone! In a recent poll, we asked our social media followers various questions about playing with their kids, and the results were interesting (and validating to those of us who are not always excited to play)!

  • 57% of respondents stated that they do NOT enjoy playing with their children
  • 79% of parents are often unsure of how to play
  • 71% of parents of 1- to 5-year-olds play with their children daily, while 26% of parents of kids ages 6 to 10 play with their children daily.
  • 42% of parents prefer structured play, like board games and coloring, while only 2% of parents prefer engaging in creative play with their kids.

Research tells us that spending quality time with our children is important for their development. For more information on this, and the three research-based keys to raising happy and healthy kids, check out our “Ultimate Parenting Guide” here.

Spending play time with our kids shows them that:

  • We want to spend time with them
  • We care about their interests
  • We can also be playful (and not always stressed out)
  • We are emotionally available and open to them

If you think back to your own childhood, and your relationship with your parents, are those four bullet points close to what you wanted, or sought, with your own parents?


Frequently Asked Questions

So, let’s get into it. First, let’s talk about a few frequently asked questions about play time. Then, will get into some quick tips and ideas for play time (nothing that is Pinterest-worthy or that requires props or set up time). Another quick note – this blog will be geared towards parents of younger kids, between the ages of 2 and 8. If you are interested in us covering a similar blog for older kids, reach out via social media and let us know!


Isn’t it important for my child to learn to play by themselves?

Yes! Ideally, your child should have enough play time for both. There are so many ways for children to play (each with it's own benefits), like:

  • Independent play
  • Playing with siblings/friends
  • Playing with a parent (with the parent choosing the activity)
  • Playing with a parent (with the child leading the play)
  • Playing through exploring (while on a walk, hike, or at the park)

I often think of the above as a “mental checklist.” Think through the above – has your child had the opportunity for each of these over the last few days? If not, is there something in your schedule you can shift to ensure they have time to play by themselves, with you, and with other kids?


But….I dislike playing! How can I play with them, if I don't like it (and don't really remember how)?


First, it’s okay, and totally normal if playing is not your favorite. Cleaning the kitchen is also not my favorite, but I’m always glad I’ve cleaned it once it’s done. Secondly, your child knows how to play. You may consider starting by letting them lead the play. Think of yourself as a sportscaster. Label what they are doing and follow along, “Oh wow, the red car is vrooming fast! Oh no, it crashed!” Another easy way to start is by playing via structured tasks with clear rules or objectives. Pull out a board game. Or grab coloring books and some crayons. Or grab the basketball and go play a quick game outside.


It seems like whenever I spend any quality time with my child, they just want more, more, MORE!


This is also normal! We all want more of a good thing when we are amidst that good thing! It’s still okay to set boundaries and stop playing when needed. Let your child know that play time will come again: “It’s time for me to do a little work now, but we can play this again first thing tomorrow morning! Do you want to drive the red car or the blue car?”

There is also a component to quality time that often unlocks a more vulnerable side to your child. Since they now have one need met, and have your full attention, they may seem a little needier. They may suddenly express a vulnerable emotion to you, that they would not have expressed without that quality time. That’s actually a sign that they are feeling safe enough to open up to you, which is a good thing.

A key thing for you to remember here is: keep your own emotions and internal dialog in check. It’s easy to think with a “tit-for-tat” mindset, something like, “Geez. I’ve just spent an hour playing with you, the least you could do is give me 5 minutes to do what I need to do.” Just remember: your kid is being a kid. They like playing with you and want more. That’s okay for them to want! It’s also okay for you to set appropriate boundaries.


Should I let my kid get bossy when we play? It makes me worry they will be bossy to other kids.


You can absolutely let your child lead the play. But that does not mean you allow them to be rude. By leading the play, they are learning valuable leadership skills and assertiveness. You may still need to correct them if they get tooooo bossy or rude. So, if your child says, “No! You aren’t doing that right! That’s not where that piece goes, stop it!” You can say, “Hm, you have a different idea for where you want this piece to go. I’d love to put it in the spot you want it to go, but I need you to kindly teach me how.”

And…you can also lead the play sometimes! There are many times when I initiate the play with my kids, and they follow my rules. There are also times where we collaborate to decide what and how we will play. And, there are times that I let them completely lead the play. They are learning valuable skills in each of those situations.


How to Play

Alright, let’s get to it! Below are some different ideas of how to play with your kids, broken down into various categories.


Structured play

Structured play involves toys or games with pre-set rules and expectations. These are things that you just *do* without having to think of *how* to play them. This is often a great way to engage with your kids, if the idea of creative play makes you cringe. Here are some easy examples:

  • Boardgames
  • Puzzles
  • Hide-and-seek
  • Coloring
  • Painting
  • Play-Doh
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Soccer
  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Obstacle Courses


Toys with a purpose

Purposeful toys or similar to structured play, in that they have a clearly intended use. However, there is often more room for imagination and interpretation for how to play.


Legos/ Magnatiles/ building toys: Simply sit next to your child and free build with them. Or, work on some engineering skills. Build a ramp for cars or balls to go down. Build a tunnel system (our kids love building a Magnatile maze for our pet hamster to run through). See who can build the tallest tower before it falls.

Cars: At our house, we have three generations of Matchbox cars – my father-in-law’s cars, my husband’s cars, and my kids’ cars. Cars are such a simple toy that everyone seems to enjoy – we will definitely be keeping them in a box in the garage for our grandkids to play one day, once our kids outgrow them. Our kids love building ramps for cars – with Matchbox car tracks, cardboard boxes, large storage container lids – everything. We also like racing them down the hall or stairs. We also play a game where we line up to rows of cars, facing each other, on opposite sides of a small table. With a parent on one side, and a kid on the other, we each simultaneously send one car crashing towards the opponent’s car. The last car on the table wins. My boys have always enjoyed making an elaborate track for the cars, then shooting slo-mo videos of them.

Balls: Another toy staple. You can play catch. You can sit on opposite sides of a hall and roll them to each other. Send several balls down the stairs at once, and see which one makes it to the bottom first. Play “wall ball” outside, bouncing the ball off the walls of the house. Or, play “roof ball” – throwing the ball on the roof, and catching it as it rolls down. Try to throw balls into plastic cups. Tape paper towel rolls or wrapping paper rolls to the wall and send ping pong balls down the tubes. Put a light ball on a table and try to blow the ball off with a straw.


Creative/imaginative play

This is, without a doubt, what many parents dread when they think about playing with their kids! Here’s some easy ideas to get you started. It’s helpful to start any imaginative or creative play with something you know. Your kids will easily take it to a creative and imaginative place – just follow their lead!

Imagine you are a place you’ve been before: Act out all of the various parts of the situation. For example, my 3-year-old and I often pretend we are going to a swimming pool. As part of the play scene, we pretend we are packing up our swimming bag (don’t forget sunscreen and snacks!), she pretends to buckle me in a car (she likes to pretend to be the grandma, while I’m the granddaughter), she drives us to the swimming pool, we get out of the car and find a spot. She pretends to put sunscreen on me. We talk about the different waterslides and lazy rivers and pretend to go on each. We just use random things in the room we are in for the various parts of our story, and sometimes, quite literally pull things out of the air and pretend to hold or use them.

Here are some ideas of different places you can pretend to go:

  • Swimming pool
  • Grocery store
  • Library
  • School
  • Zoo
  • Pumpkin patch
  • Amusement park
  • Grandpa’s house
  • Restaurant
  • Ice cream salon
  • Hairdressing salon
  • Mechanic shop
  • Post office
  • Doctor’s office
  • Dentist
  • Dog park
  • Playground

Act out a scene from a movie or show: My daughter’s favorite show right now is “Lego Ninjago,” which means that those ninja characters tend to show up for most of our creative play. It’s a current favorite go-to for all of us, as, we always know she will be thrilled for Kai or Lloyd to show up in our pretend play. I also like to think of storylines from movies from my childhood that she is not as familiar with. Which means I regularly plagiarize the exact story line from Swiss Family Robinson: pirates, coconut bombs, water snakes, riding zebras – the whole thing. Here are some ideas of other shows, movies,  or books, you are most likely familiar with, that you can also steal from for your imaginative play:

  • Swiss Family Robinson
  • Mary Poppins
  • Frozen
  • Robin Hood
  • Matilda
  • Davy Crockett
  • Sword and the Stone
  • Treasure Island
  • Homeward Bound
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Hook/ Peter Pan
  • Jumanji
  • The Indian in the Cupboard
  • Charlotte’s Web

Still not sure how to engage in creative play with your kids? Watch an episode or two of Bluey and do as Bandit and Chili do! When it comes to playing with our kids, a little plagiarism never hurt anyone.


Exploratory Play

Explorative play is often a fairly quiet, sensory-rich play, where your child’s thoughts and imagination can wander. There is no purpose or outline to follow.

For indoor exploratory play, you can make an easy sensory bin. Get a large storage container, and fill it with uncooked rice, uncooked beans, uncooked corn, cooked noodles, or soft puffs. Collect other items like buttons, marbles, pinecones, rocks (watch your child for anything that involves a choking risk). Also provide items like ice scops, tongs, or large tweezers. Put the tub on a large blanket (for easy clean up), and let your child explore. I’ve found that the simplest set ups often lead to the longest play time. The few times when I’ve made something more elaborate – like setting plastic animals in Jell-O or freezing colored ice cubes – are the times when my kids are the least interested in the activity.

For outdoor explorative play, encourage your kids to collect items in nature. Grab a couple of paint swatches at your local hardware store and encourage your kids to find nature items that match each color. See if they can build a fort, or a fairy house, out of materials in your backyard. Let them play in water, in whatever form is available near your home. Let them dig holes in the dirt or mud.


Roughhouse Play

Rough house play is extremely beneficial for our kids. Not only does it give good proprioceptive input, and helps them work on motor skills, but it also lets our kids learn assertiveness. They should be able to state when they want the play to stop. Also, they respond to other people playing when they ask to stop. Some easy ideas for roughhouse play include:

  • Wrestling
  • Chase
  • Throwing them on the couch
  • Letting them “fly like superman,” while resting their stomachs on your feet
  • Seeing if they can run past you without you catching them 

I hope you read the above and thought – ah, that’s actually all pretty simple and straightforward, I can do that! We also hope you have a few new ideas and feel encouraged to spend some play time with your kids. Is there anything you’d add to our list of play ideas? If so, reach out via social media and let us know!


Dr. Erin

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