Why Play is so important for kids.

action activity boy children

Play: There’s an old saying “ a child’s job is to play” and I always add “it’s our job as parents to ensure that our children participate joyfully in the essential part of childhood development ” free play”. 

In this generation, there is an increase in technology, texting, homework, and two parents working and a decrease in recess. As such educators, child therapists and parents need to come together to ensure kids don’t lose their childhood and continue to get enough unstructured free playtime.

PLAY is crucial to a child’s emotional and academic success. Play allows parents a window into their baby child’s emotional world and who they are inside. Play builds closeness, connection, love, joy, emotional intelligence, and decreases stress by allowing children to work through tough situations. 

 Play sets the stage for a lifetime of talking, listening, successful intimate relationships, trust, and learning how to get emotional and physical needs met.

Becoming a Behavior Detective using Play and Emotional Intelligence

 Play is also the beginning of teaching your children emotional intelligence skills. The parents begin the process of understanding what a child is really communicating with their play and behavior even before they speak. Eventually, as the child grows parents teach these skills so a child can begin to understand and express their own inner world. 

For example, sometimes when a child says they don’t want to play with a particular friend or grown-up, they are communicating some sort of hurt feelings. It is our job as parents to figure out what it means by teaching new words, new feelings, and new behaviors. I call this process becoming a “Behavior-Feelings Detective.” Research shows that kids that play pretend and learn emotional intelligence skills early in life do better and are happier and more successful.


Parent: “I see you don’t want to play with Mary today and that’s ok.

But I am wondering if something happened? 

Maybe your feelings were hurt by something she did?

Child: No! Nothing happened I just don’t want to play with her.

Parent: OK another day. Let’s do the feelings map we enjoy that. 

Kid: (drawing- talking together)

The map is fun, I am upset is because Mary didn’t sit with me at lunch yesterday.

Parent; Oh, I am sorry your feelings were hurt, did you feel she didn’t like you?

Kid: Does she?

Parent: What do you think?

Kid: I guess she still likes me, I sit with other kids too! Can we still play with her today?

Becoming a Playful Grown-Up

When children are toddlers, they enjoy peek-a-boo, cuddling, playing with stuffed animals, dollhouses, action figures, and cars. Get down on the floor and play with them. When you go to the park, divide your time between socializing with the grown-ups and playing with your kids. 

 Make up games that use imagination like, “I’m going to get you”, hide and seek, take a ride on a tire swing that becomes a space ship and travel to another planet, (don’t forget to spray on the pretend sunscreen when you pass the sun) good witch, bad witch game, family role-playing, chasing each other, cops and robbers. Play restaurant, school, doctors, and hospitals. For a hospital, you need just a bunch of Band-Aids and an ace bandage and these games can go on for hours. I always have a large box in my home folded up. A box is usually a children’s favorite toy because it can be anything. 

 When you are a playful grown-up, your home will become a place kids love coming to. Set up one room that is the free play area. My living room had a fold-away trampoline a swing and a green screen. 

If your kids and their friends find comfort, fun, and acceptance in your home they will seek you out to share about their day, and they’ll feel safe confiding in you when inevitable problems arise. 

How to Play and Listen Effectively

 It’s a myth that your child doesn’t want to play with you or talk to you. They love it! It’s just a matter of how you play, and how effectively you listen. You must work the fine line between being a parent who sets limits, and a play grown-up that knows how to have fun and be a confidant. A balance must also be struck between allowing them time with their friends, and time with you.

Behind-the-scenes help.

I had many kids tell me that one child doesn’t talk to another at recess and it’s hard to know which friends to play with or how to join a group already playing. Children and many adults don’t know how to handle difficult situations. So I encourage parents to invite their child’s friends over to play weekly for fun and sometimes subtle non-helicopter help.

On Playdates: Situations 1

Kid 1: To another child “You are Weird” 

Kid 2: Remains quiet but the face looks so hurt and starts crying.

Kid 1: “You really are weird”

Parent: As you give a quick hug to the hurt child and say I am sorry your feelings are hurt, ask the other child “I’m wondering what did you mean to say’’?

Kid 1: “I don’t know” 

Parent“Did something hurt your feelings, because weird is a hurtful word to use?”

Kid 1: “I didn’t like that she said, “I was taking too long.”

Parent: “Okay so can you tell her that your feelings were hurt instead of using a hurtful word back! Then the kids were able to talk it out.”

Situation 2

kid 3: You’re a weirdo

Kid 4: I’m not playing with you

Kid 3:I’m not playing with you, I want to go home!

Parent: Sounds like some feelings are hurt here, let’s figure out what you meant to say!

Kid 3: I don’t know

Parent: Did you get scared of her new idea?

Did you mean to say that’s interesting, let me think about it, its scary?

Kid 3: Yes it was interesting but it was a different idea. Maybe it did scare me, what if I can’t play that?

Kid 4: I can show you how and it is just for fun.

Kid 3:  Ok let’s try it, it was new but I liked it! You have interesting ideas!

Situation 3

Kid: Remember the girl B who keeps giving me strange looks.”

Parent: Yes, we talked about how hurtful that is and you said she hated you. 

Kid: Yes, I thought she hated me and she was being mean to me. You said I am sorry and we can figure out how to handle that. But before we do that, have you said hello or smiled at her to check out what is going on?”

Kid: Today I ignored her face and said hi. She said hi back so I asked her if she wanted to play chase?” I can’t believe it she smiled this big smile and said yes! We ran around had fun it was great”. I have a new friend!  

Parent: Wow awesome, that was really brave! 

 Tips on how to become a playful Grown-Up 

Listen well, use empathy, use your imagination, have patience, and go with the flow of pretend, plus enjoy and appreciate your kids (or kid).

1: Establish a routine.  

At the beginning of playdates ask each child to tell you “What they liked about their day, What they didn’t like.”

Respond with Empathy

“Thanks for telling me or that was interesting.”

“I’m sorry that happened, that sounds hard.”

2: Smoothing the way

Invite kids over that may not be getting along to create a project they can work on together to bond, like making a movie, writing a story or song.

 3: No technology

Make your house an interactive play house and do not use a computer or phone. (this goes for adults and kids)

4: Establish a Healthy House: Healthy Feelings= Healthy Snacks 

Serve love, fun, feelings, water, and fruits, NO soda, juice, or junk food.

5: Empower them to make up games.

 Ask kids what game they want to play, or make a suggestion. If you want to be in their life, don’t control their play by scolding or making excessive demands. If they start telling you to leave the room so they can play freely at an early age, it’s a clue that you’re being overly controlling. 

 As they get older, give them the choice of playing with their friends alone first, or “family playtime” first, which means all ages included.  

I poignantly remember a play date of riding bikes in the freezing NYC cold and the kids decided they were wild white horses in a race. I had to be the announcer and judge the race, rainbow horses against the white stallions. Each race they decided which team would win and each time they won I had to give them pretend oats to eat which were blueberries. To me that was a win-win activity, exercise, fun, playing together adults and kids, healthy snacks, and imagination at work. My favorite type of play day.