Why We Need To Play With Our Kids, Even If We Kinda Hate It

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
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I will be the first to admit that I love playing with my children about 90% of the time. I have three of them, and few things warm my heart like throwing a football in the front yard with my ten-year-old son, or helping my three-year-old build her Peppa Pig Lego house. But that other 10%? Well, those times can be… difficult.

Sometimes, after a 12-hour day at work, I don’t really want to play Battleship. In fact, I hate board games. I find them boring, even with my children. It’s not personal; I just don’t enjoy them and I never have. But despite my annoyance with Battleship (and all board games, for that matter), I play that game all the time, even when I really don’t want too. Though I do “cheat” a little so every call is a direct hit for my kid so the game will end sooner. My child gets a boost of confidence for winning a game against dad, and I get to end the pain sooner. Win-win.

For those of you who love your kids, but dislike “playing,” there’s some pretty interesting news about the benefits of playing with our kids. For the past three years, Ikea — yes, the furniture people — has released an Annual Play Report looking at all the great things play has to offer. According to the 2017 report, “play is pretty serious business. So serious, in fact, that we have conducted some of the world’s largest research studies on the Role of Play… We’ve spent 8 months connecting, on a regular basis, with more than 300 people in Germany, the US and China to explore how, and why, we play.”

The report has some pretty fascinating information on why we play, the importance of play, and the barriers to play. One section that really popped out to me as a father who sometimes doesn’t want to play at the end of a long day was “How Do We Play Together?”

It defines six different forms of play, and why that style of play is beneficial for both the parent and the child. For example, ‘freestyle’ play is when “the child simply follows their own play urges.” Typically, this means that the parent is in the uncomfortable cycle of a child creating the rules to their own game, and then you have the pleasure of trying to play a game as it’s being invented, only to find out that all the rules are not actually rooted in equality, but rather in your child’s favor.

But it turns out there are a lot of benefits to this type of play for both the parent and the child. According to the study, freestyle play “nurtures a child’s confidence and decision-making. It also allows adults to regress by experiencing the world through a child’s eyes, freeing up new ideas and shaking up normative thinking.”

Another example is “Out-of-the-Box” play, which is basically artistic play. This is where your child makes a huge mess on the kitchen table with paints and sheets of paper, and once it’s all done you get the pleasure of pretending to be an art critic with very liberal taste in what constitutes a wonderfully executed drawing of a monkey.

According to the Play Report, “this type of play promotes a more creative mode of thinking, allowing adults and children alike to tap into their imagination and a world beyond rules and obligation.” As much as I like to think that we are a world of rules, the fact is, imagination is the gateway to innovation, and this type of play is the cornerstone of developing a strong sense of looking for outside the box for solutions.

Naturally, the report covered formal play as well. This is where you play a game with a set of rules like chess or the dreaded Battleship. The Play Report states that, ‘This type of play brings families together and is a fun way to help adults and children to focus, relax and solve problems creatively.” As much as I dislike playing board games, after reading the benefits of playing them with my children, I have a feeling I’m going to take on this task more often and hopefully more vigor.

The Play Report also lists the benefits of ‘Mirror-Me’ play, ‘Muddy-Boots’ play, and ‘Build-It’ play. All have similar benefits to the ones listed above for both the parent and the child.

Now I know some people might be reading this thinking, well duh. Of course, play is beneficial to children and parents. But sometimes, after a long day of being home with the kids clinging to your body, or arguing with you for screen time, the last thing you want to so is break out a board game or play some off-the-cuff, imaginative version of Tag where the rules develop as the game progresses. And sure, someone is going to jump into the comments section and call me a jerk of a father because I admitted that sometimes I’d rather have a little time to myself instead of playing a game that hasn’t been invented yet.

But if you are like me, and you need a little extra motivation to actually get out an art project, and then clean up the mess after a long day, think about these tangible benefits of playing with your child. It just might make dealing with the mess or enduring some amorphous “game” a little more tolerable.

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