Why does finding time to play with your child feel so hard?

Play is the work of childhood, and the benefits are innumerable: Play is a gateway to a “state of flow”—a psychological experience where children are totally and happily immersed. Through play, children acquire key skills for life including self-regulation, cooperation, problem solving and perspective-taking—just to name a few. Play allows children to work through scenarios in a safe space; provides adults insight into children’s thinking; gives an opportunity for joint attention between parent and child where the child feels respected and supported; supports fine and gross motor development through physical play; can give space to support children in furthering social, math and literacy skills by giving opportunities to practice these skills and scaffold their development in a fun way.

Paradoxically, play can sometimes seem like a lot of work for parents, too. To engage in pretend play we often have to suspend our own disbelief and enter into a world of fantasy. It can be difficult to become a fairy godmother who can transform one’s life from poverty to riches! It’s also easy to fall into the trap of feeling that you’re not creative enough. We all have seen the Pinterest boards of elaborate DIY play scenarios that make us feel less-than, while we sit there staring at a cardboard box.

When you’re tired or stressed, engaging in play can feel even more challenging—it’s more difficult to pretend that the problems of the “real world” don’t exist, and sometimes you just don’t have the energy to engage in more physical play.

Younger children in particular can make it difficult to get play started: They often rely on an older participant to develop the scenario for them. While they know what they want the play scenario to involve, they may not be able to express this clearly to you. So your initial attempts at creating the “perfect” scenario may be met by your child’s (and your) frustration and ensuing meltdown.

What are some ways we can support our children and ourselves in play when it can be so hard? Here are some tips we’ve suggested to parents who have joined Cooper, which offers real-time expertise on the issues that matter most to parents in an easy-to-use, always-on online platform that creates true community.

4 tips on how to engage in childhood play

1. Talk about the play before engaging in it

Before starting pretend play with your young child, discuss what the play will involve. Who are the characters, and what are their roles? What’s going to happen in this scenario? Planning beforehand allows you and your child to prepare—and be ready to each be true to your envisioned role, helping to reduce frustration.

2. Set a visual timer

On average, children need 15 minutes of child-directed play with a primary caregiver each day. That’s it! In order to manage expectations, you might set a visual timer (like a sand glass) for the amount of time you and your child will play. Knowing that there is a set time helps boost the quality of caregiver-child play—it helps make sure you’re both attuned to the importance of that time.

3. Work play into other activities

For example, bathtime can be a great opportunity for play time. Maybe it’s hard to find time for everything, but you know your child needs a bath—and you also want to engage in some pretend play with them. The bath offers opportunities to be a mermaid, an astronaut suspended in space, and more. When you can work play into your current routine, you and your child can have fun in child-directed joint play while also reducing your stress level by checking off an item on your evening to-do list.

4. Encourage independent play, as well

Independent play is not just a matter of convenience for parents. Through independent play, children develop their sense of agency, problem-solving skills and autonomy.

To encourage independent play, provide children with fewer toys (yes, fewer!). Having fewer toys available encourages children to engage with each toy for a longer period of time.

Also, provide children with a clearly defined “task” with their play. For example, instead of saying, “I need to finish reading this. Please go play with your toys,” caregivers can try saying, “Here are some puzzles. Do two of them while I finish reading this.”

Independent play is also a skill that is learned gradually. A young child may only engage in a few minutes of independent play, but increased practice in a responsive environment can support the development of independent play skills by the toddler years.

A note on engaging in childhood play

It’s during parent-child play that magical things can happen—and we’re not just talking about trips to the fantasy world your child has created. Play can foster communication, increase the parent-child bond and give a glimpse into your child’s emotional state. Finding time to carve out play sessions with your little one can be tough when you’ve got so much on your plate, but trust that when you are able to do so, it’s incredibly beneficial—for both of you.