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Getting the Most Out of Your Play

Get the Most Out of Your Play
Five ways to maximize playtime for happy kids, happy parents, and a happy home.

Get the Most Out of Your PlayParents and caregivers often break the first and most important rule of play: the child is always the director! In the realm of play, parents are simply actors hired to play a scene. Keep the following tips in mind, and you just might get invited back.

A Circle is Never a Circle

As an art therapist, I love watching a child draw or create something and waiting for them to tell me what they are creating. Parents and caregivers sometimes have a hard time waiting for that moment.

“Oh, is that a cat?”
“NO! That’s not a cat, that’s the baby!”

By voicing your ideas first, you’re unwittingly influencing your child’s creation, and you may disappoint your child if you guess incorrectly. Don’t assume you know what your child is making. The best part of their creation is listening to their imaginations explain their masterpieces. Listen more while you play, and watch what happens.

Directors Have Rights

We never like to encourage negative or aggressive play, but if we go back to the idea that a child playing is a child communicating, then communication should (by necessity) include both positive and negative elements. When we communicate, it’s generally when we have an idea, thought, or emotion that we need to express. This communication process is equally important to a child.

While your first instinct might be to say, “Stop!” or, “That’s not nice, we don’t play that way,” when your child is aggressive, we should try to curb that behavior. If your child is expressing aggressive thoughts or actions in their play (i.e., saying things like, “I’m going to shoot the bad guy”; “The boy got smacked because he was bad”; or even using foul language) let them play it out but make a mental note to remember the incident. Try not to disrupt the actual play. Instead, when the play is complete, sit down with your child and talk to them about it.

“You know when you were shooting the bad guy? It made mommy wonder why that was happening because she does not like guns. Where did you learn about shooting bad guys? What does that mean to you?”

Children often repeat things they hear at school or at home, or from TV or video games. If an aggressive feeling surfaces but is not a repeated action, then perhaps the child is just trying to express anger or frustration. Allow your child to play out his or her feelings, but make sure you talk about what happened later. By giving your child an avenue to vent while explaining what’s considered right and wrong outside of play, you’re simultaneously validating your child’s experiences while reserving your right to parent.

Who’s the Boss?

Let your children be in charge of their own play, but use caution—you still need to start and end play with a review of the rules.

“You get to be in charge while we’re playing, but I’m in charge whenever I call a timeout.”

I like using timeout (or “Freeze!” for small children) because it is a concept kids easily latch on to. Explain what the timeout or freeze means and use it sparingly. For example, if your child uses a bad word excessively, breaks character, or puts hands on you or anyone else, it’s probably time for a timeout. At the end of playtime, I like to quiz kids on who’s in charge no, and who needs to follow rules.

“Well that was some great playing! Now that we’re finished, who is in charge? Who needs to follow rules? What happens if you don’t follow the rules?”

Review concepts like these and have the child explain it back to you to make sure that he or she fully understands.

Give Choices

Are you guilty of choosing what type of play your child participates in? Admit it—it happens. If you worry about your child taking out an excessive amount of toys and failing to clean up properly, or you just want to limit their use of certain toys, try offering them choices. For example, if you have thirty minutes before dinner and need to keep the children occupied so that you can finish cooking, offer play choices that are easy to clean up: drawing, playing with the dollhouse, or using playdough. If you’re concerned about noise, try suggesting that your child work on a puzzle, read some books, or color.

By giving your child choices, you’re helping your child to learn how to make decisions, and you’re promoting independent play with positive limits. Even better, you’re giving them options without plunking them in front of the TV, a fallback that we’re all guilty of sometimes. In addition, you’re not forcing them to do something, which helps avoid arguments or meltdowns. The best choice, of course, is to allow your child to pick whatever he or she would like to do in that moment—something that’s not always feasible. Be realistic and provide alternatives.

Don’t Play If You Aren’t Going to Have Fun

Listen—your child knows what’s up. Children have a veritable sixth sense when it comes to who is cool, down to earth, and willing to play with them openly and honestly. If you’re having a bad day, you’re in a rotten mood, or you’re just not feeling the idea of rolling around on the carpet and making weird animal noises, don’t. You’re better of gently letting your child down (with a promise of play later) rather than faking your way through it. If you’re inattentive or disgruntled during play, your child may not want to play with you in the future. If you do have to disappoint with the not-right-now speech, try and remember to go back sometime later and offer some real, enthusiastic play time. That play will be well worth the wait for both you and your child.

About the author

Robyn Spodek-Schindler

Robyn Spodek-Schindler

Robyn Spodek-Schindler is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Creative Arts Therapist (LCAT), Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC), Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) and will be earning her RPT (Registered Play Therapist) in early 2014. She has been in the pediatric and young adult counseling field for a decade. Mrs. Spodek-Schindler has taught and guest lectured at CW Post at Long Island University.

She currently owns and operate her full time private practice, Paint the Stars Art Therapy, LLC. In her spare time Mrs. Spodek-Schindler enjoys creating her own artwork in such mediums as charcoal, watercolor, and pastels. Learn more at

  • Shannon

    All great ideas for play, thank you for sharing with us.

  • Sandy VanHoey

    I really enjoyed this article. I am helping to raise my young grandkids and I learned alot with this article

  • lisa

    I learned early on when my children were young to never ask them what they were drawing. It was always, I love that. That would be enough to have them start telling me what it was.

  • Jana | Merlot Mommy

    I love this! There are some great tips in here I’ll be using. We’re big advocates of choices in this house. We find if they are involved in the decision-making process in play or otherwise, they react better.

  • Katie

    Great tips! Letting kids help and choose makes a HUGE difference in how they regard you. Love this!

  • I agree that the power of play is so important. I love the innocence of children and playing with them and all of their creativity.

  • Jen St Germain Leeman

    I like this advice, especially the tactics for discussing aggressive behavior. I wish I would have seen this when my daughter was younger, but I have plenty of friends with young kids I’ll share this with.

  • Slap Dash Mom

    This is great advice – my girls are getting older so there’s less “play” but it’s still interesting to read. 🙂

  • Diane Nassy

    Excellent tips. I used to ask my son that question when drawing, but now I let him tell me what it is he is drawing.

  • Tatanisha Worthey

    Great tips! I agree that your children should be in charge of play– let the imagination take place and follow their lead!

  • Great tips. My kids are grown now, but was just having this conversation with a friend that has young children. I will have to send her by to read them!

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