Despite being in my mid-30s, I have yet to graduate from the kids’ table at family functions. No, I’m not stuck sitting there caring for my own children; I don’t have any. And every time I even think about relocating to dine with people who could identify a rotary telephone, I’m pulled — sometimes literally — back to a chair so close to the ground that my knees and shoulders are basically level. According to my sister, this is my own fault because I’m constantly playing with the children in our family, giving the kids the impression that I’m their playtime peer instead of a legitimate adult, in the same category with their parents.
She’s not wrong. If I cross paths with a child who wants to play, I’ll get down on the floor and within minutes, we’re deep into an imagined scenario where I am usually some sort of witch (“because of your pointy nose,” many kids have informed me). It’s typically not something I initiate, but kids are pretty intuitive and can suss out a sucker — I mean, an adult who will willingly play with them — from a mile away.
But other adults have the opposite problem: they think they’re awkward around children and “don’t know how to play.” Sure, tiny humans can be hard to read sometimes, but by taking their lead most people can successfully play — or at least interact — with them. Here are a few tips from experts on how exactly to get started.
Actually, you do know how to play
If for some reason you don’t think you know how to play, that’s not the case. “Every single person knows how to play because every single person was once a child,” Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, a registered psychologist, parenting educator, best-selling author of Parenting Right From the Start tells Scary Mommy. “And so we feed ourselves a narrative that we’re grown ups and it’s awkward and we don’t know what we’re doing, but it’s just a narrative. It’s not reality. So that’s the person’s consciousness about self getting in the way.” Yes, you’re probably going to look silly crouched down on the ground playing pretend, but that’s OK! Part of what’s so much fun about playing with children is being able to get a little wacky and stop acting like an adult for a little while.
Follow the child’s lead
When in doubt, physically get down to the child’s eye level, and follow their lead (as long as it’s safe). According to Dr. Amy Webb, who has a doctorate in human development and is the founder of The Thoughtful Parent, the key aspect of playing with toddlers and older kids is to engage in their play and allow them to mostly take the lead, while still providing a little scaffolding or assistance when needed. “For example, if they want to play pretend doctor, you can be the patient while they are the doctor,” she tells Scary Mommy. “You allow them to lead the play while you take a role and ask questions to facilitate the extension of the play (e.g., why are you listening to my heart? Do I need medicine?).”
Not only will this type of play be fun for the child, but it also helps them learn. “This builds new knowledge for the child (as you ask questions) and builds executive function skills like planning and staying in character,” Webb explains. This can be an especially helpful technique if you don’t think you’re great with kids because you’re in the role of the spectator or assistant, and won’t have to organize or structure the game yourself.
Notice what the child thinks is fun & go with that
The more time you spend with a kid, the better you’ll get to know them and what kind of play they respond to the most, and eventually be able to introduce new activities or experiences, according to Dr. Jack Maypole, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the Comprehensive Care Program at Boston Medical Center. “Fun is motivation,” he tells Scary Mommy. “Joy and laughter cements the process together. Stimulation captures and captivates, stimulating synaptic formation, cognitive challenge, and fosters paying attention for little brains hungry for experiences and relationships to feed from.”
If the child isn’t into something, move on
Maybe you loved playing tea party or hot lava as a kid, and that’s great. But if you try and play one of your own beloved childhood games with a kid and they don’t understand the appeal, don’t push it. According to Lapointe, if a child physically turns their body away from your body, it’s a sign that they’re not too keen on the type of play you’ve initiated. Instead, move on to something else. “You pick up what they’re putting down and then you have your interacting be inspired as a result of what your child has handed over to you,” she tells Scary Mommy.
Observe other parents
If you’re unsure how to play with your own child, pay attention to what other parents are doing with their own kids and take note. Maybe they have a certain game they play or questions they ask to get things moving. Or, if you think you need additional assistance, you can seek out developmental specialists and see how they interact with kids, according to Jamie Mitchell, an early intervention physical therapist and founder of HelpMyBabyLearn.com. “So many times, we met parents that didn’t think they were good with their kids, but we were able to reassure them that they were already doing a really great job,” she tells Scary Mommy.
Don’t stress about getting it right
The number-one issue that Lapointe says she sees affecting parents, particularly of young children, is that they’re so desperate to do it right that it can be a source of stress. Some parents have their own agenda about what their child “should” be doing at certain ages and how and what they should be playing, but being flexible and adapting to what a child is actually interested in is a better strategy. “They should just take a breath and step back and honor the splendor of [child] development in its natural state,” Lapointe says. “You will be completely shocked by how stunning it is.”