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The Benefits of Playing with our Children

The Benefits of Playing with our Children
By Emma Marie Forde

I am an unschooling mum to two daughters, currently ages nine and five. They love to play; playing with them is something that I have chosen to prioritize because I see how much they thrive when we play, although it is something that I have not always found easy. Playing with children is not something that always comes naturally to adults (depending on their experience) but it is possible to learn and I hope to explain here why I think it is important.

Before having children I trained and worked as a Clinical Psychologist with Children and Families. I observed in family homes, nurseries, and pre-school settings just how much children loved to play and how passionate they were about it. I noticed how often children tried to draw me and other adults around them into their play, asking us to connect in ways that were enjoyable and meaningful to them.

I discovered that children’s requests to play with an adult were often overlooked and their invitations unreciprocated. The nature of nursery and pre-school settings mean there are usually only a few adults available in contrast to the numbers of children. Adults are often busy with tasks or are helping other children so they have little time to play. At home, there may be other siblings and household tasks to take care of and unless we value and choose to prioritize play with children, opportunities to play and connect may slip by.

In a society that values emotional independence from an early age, children can be encouraged to play away from parents either alone or with other children. There can be a lot of emphasis on the benefits of children playing independently from their parents but relatively few highlight the benefits of a parent and child playing together. Lawrence Cohen’s book Playful Parenting is a wonderful antidote to this and is immensely helpful for its reflections on the value and importance of playing with children; it is a book which has been very influential in my own approach to play and parenting.

Cohen focuses on the ways we can connect with our children through play and in doing so have fun, heal, and deepen our relationships.

“Play – together with Playful Parenting – can be the long-sought bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child… Playful parenting is a way to enter a child’s world, on the child’s terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection. When all is well in their world, play is an expansive vista where children are joyful, engaged, cooperative, and creative.” Lawrence Cohen.1

I first encountered a different attitude towards play with children when I was working in therapeutic settings, where there is a long history of using play.2 I observed that play could be used to help children who had experienced trauma and abuse. I watched powerful narratives unfolding in children’s play and I came to appreciate how important it was to create a safe space where they could play, feel listened to and be understood. It was also helpful to be able to join them when asked – to connect, facilitate and discover shared meanings.

Sometimes, a child wanted to play at being a baby or a younger child who needed to be nurtured. At other times, I was prompted to take on the role of an anti-hero who they would trap and overpower. I found these experiences very moving and I realized the potential for play within a relationship to engage, to make meaning, to communicate, and to heal.

Why Parents Make Good Play Partners

A parent can offer a unique opportunity for play focussed specifically on their child’s interests and developmental needs. Children and siblings can enjoy playing together but they don’t always make the best play partners: A parent may leave siblings or friends to play alone but if a child is not developmentally ready, frustrations and conflicts can easily arise. A mature and reflective parent is in a better position to manage their frustrations, put aside their own needs, and think about what best suits the child. They can tailor the play experience to suit their child’s need for particular types of play that other children may not be as interested or able to engage in. If a child has difficulty taking other people’s perspectives into account, negotiating rules, or managing their feelings, a parent can make an ideal play partner as they can be sensitive to the child’s needs and preferences.

Parents who recognize the value of play can have an important role in creating spaces and opportunities for children to play. They can be playful and initiate play when it feels right and help facilitate play between siblings, friends, and other children by providing safe and interesting spaces (whether in the home or out and about), making playful suggestions, sharing and discussing ideas for games and role play in a way that helps children to share their ideas, and decide what and how they would like to play.

Parents can also provide props and resources – such as dress-up clothes, sand, water, bubbles, easily accessible technology (access to computers/tablets/phones for each child to play), and most importantly they can offer their engaged, caring, and attentive presence. They know when to stand back and when to be more involved. During play, parents can provide reassurance, contain anxieties, provide alternatives, anticipate and help resolve potential problems to support play. Sometimes, a parent might play with a younger child to enable the older children to play together without interruption. There are so many helpful ways that parents can facilitate and be involved with their children’s play.

Why it is Important to Play: The Benefits of Playing With Our Children

1. Laughter and Joy

Our children find joy in playing and want us to play with them and share that joy! Partnering them and meeting their need for play, in the same way we would meet their need for breastfeeding or for proximity, is an important part of loving and attentive parenting. It is only through meeting a child’s needs that they are able to develop and thrive as emotionally healthy and connected members of society. Laughter can be a particularly beneficial part of play and research has shown that it can help reduce anxiety, stress and tension. 3

“Play is fun, and laughter is the soundtrack of having fun. On another level, though, there are profound relationships between giggling and the deeper purpose behind children’s play. Laughing can be a sign of connection between people, a sign of successfully completing a challenging task, or a sign that a child no longer feels miserable or hurt. Giggles and belly laughs are the natural way that children and adults release fears and embarrassment and anxiety.” Lawrence Cohen 1

2. Deepening Our Connections

Play can be fun for both parents and children and can promote joy, laughter, and positive shared experiences, which can be a powerful way of deepening our relationships. When we are laughing, playing, and enjoying ourselves, our bodies produce a hormone called oxytocin (also known as the love hormone), which has been shown to help deepen the bonds of attachment.4 5 6 When children reach out to play with the adults around them, it can be understood as a request for connection, security, and love.

I’ve noticed that playing together has deepened not only my relationships with both my daughters but also their relationships with each other. They also love playing with their dad and when we play together as a family it is wonderful how it connects us.

Playing and being playful with children throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond can be a powerful way of nurturing our attachments, creativity, and passion for life.

3. Emotional Acceptance and Well Being

Playing with our children is a wonderful way of connecting with them on an emotional level. We can gain an insight into their emotional lives, which can enable us to see their perspective of the world more easily. Seeing things from the child’s point of view can help us to develop a greater empathy and understanding of their experience and help us to respond more thoughtfully and compassionately.

Through play, we can become more attuned to our child’s emotional states and learn how our interactions help a child to regulate their emotions.7 8 A parent can be sensitive to the ebbs and flow in the emotional energy during play and can learn to respond in ways that help the child feel listened to and understood. Children can express their feelings and thoughts directly through the themes and stories that emerge during playm and also in the way that they engage with those they are playing with.

My daughters enjoy playing a variety of games where they are young creatures, sometimes newly hatched ones who need to be looked after. They invite me to be the owner who is responsible for feeding, looking after, and playing with them. As we play, I notice that various themes emerge that explore what it means to be cared for and nurtured, particularly when an owner is caring for more than one creature at a time.

During our play, my daughters can sometimes be deeply serious and at other times there is much laughter and happiness; this may change and flow as we play. The feelings and emotions expressed in play are often representative of feelings and emotions that are important to them and that they are negotiating in their everyday lives. An example would be issues connected to sibling rivalry, times when they feel left out, expressing anger and conflict about sharing time and attention, as well as expressing and playing with themes and emotions around nurturing, loving, and feeling connected.

Conflict and boundary disputes can also sometimes arise along with frustration and anger. As the parent, I can help them to negotiate and resolve these conflicts so that play can continue. The negotiations about the rules of play can often take place before play begins, and throughout the process, and are an important part of play and communication. Creating the right kind of environment, listening, and being present and attentive helps them to play and flourish.

“Playful parenting helps bring children back to the free expression of emotion and out of the pitfalls of burying those emotions inside or having them come out sideways… Children who are feeling confident and connected are either able to play happily, or are able to let us know how they are feeling. They let us know in words, or through the direct release of emotions, or through the themes in their play.” Lawrence Cohen 1

4. Developing Trust and Self Esteem

Playing with children in ways they enjoy and find meaningful helps to build a sense of trust between parent and child. Observations of young babies show that they interact in playful ways with their caretakers from the early days.8

If parents are attuned and responsive to their children’s playful invitations, it builds a sense of security and connection, which comes to be internalized and experienced as good self-esteem.8 Playing and being playful with our children continues to be important as our children grow.

By playing with children we communicate that their interests are important and that we want to prioritize and spend time with them – this can be a powerful way of nurturing self-esteem. In play we communicate that we are taking our children and their ideas seriously, helping them to feel respected, valued, and understood.

“When we engage babies in playful activities while remaining sensitive and responsive to them, they learn to communicate and connect with us. If you continue to interact playfully with your children as they grow older, you can maintain a healthy attachment with them. When they say “play with me,” they will feel truly loved and valued if you sit on the floor to join them in their fantasy play.” Aletha Solter 3

5. Making Meaning of Experience

Play can help children to make meaning of their experiences by exploring events, feelings and ideas in a safe context. English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described play as taking place within a potential space, an area between fantasy and reality, where the child (or adult) can maintain a feeling of efficacy and control, where disbelief is temporarily suspended. 9

Children may re-enact events that have happened in their lives in order to make sense of them and work through some of the feelings. Imaginative role play can also be a powerful way that children can explore aspects of their identity, social roles, and their relationship with their self and others. Playing with a child communicates that they are not alone and that we can come to shared understandings and new meanings together. By playing together with children, we can learn more about their lives and the issues which are salient to them.

“In playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative.” Winnicott 10

6. Play as Communication: Working Through Conflicts and Anxieties

Children may not always be able to verbalize conflicts and anxieties that they experience in their lives and play is often a way that children can show us what concerns them.

They may ask us to play games that enable them to work through issues that are important to them. Play can focus on issues of attachment, separation, loss, and re-connection or games that involve nurturing and exploring ideas of what it means to be small and vulnerable being cared for by someone bigger and more powerful. Power and control may also be themes which emerge during play, as well as co-operating and working together in collaborative and creative ways.

My five-year-old often initiates games of hide and seek with us and loves the process involved in hiding and being found – although I can see that the act of hiding and wondering whether she will be found produces some anxiety and of course finally relief. In this way, she explores some of her thoughts and fears about separation, loss, and re-connection and, in taking up her invitation to play joyfully, I can help her to feel seen, understood, and respected.

Gerard Jones suggests in his book Killing Monsters: Our Children’s Need for Fantasy, Heroism and Make Believe Violence that children may be drawn to violent themes in their play and media usage in order to make meaning of their experience.11 12 Growing up in societies where adults can be preoccupied with violence and often anxious about it at the same time, playing with violent or combative themes can be a useful way of working through and making sense of some of these issues in a way that feels safe for children to explore.

We can partner our children in their play and help them to explore themes and issues that concern them rather than preventing them from doing this as a result of our own fears and anxieties.

“These are some of the essential functions of play. It 'explodes' tensions through emotional arousal and make-believe aggression. It provides correctives, happy endings, that help children believe that what frightens them can be overcome. It helps them navigate their concerns through structures and rules that they can learn and predict and so feel that they’ve mastered. It allows them to manipulate troubling ideas until those ideas become familiar and lose their power. Entertainment performs those same functions when young people build those into their fantasies or work it into their social lives or play with it in a game.” Gerard Jones 11

7. Co-creating New Narratives

Playing with our children can lead to them feeling loved and understood. Through play, we can co-create new stories, opening up possibilities for alternative narratives about our relationships and our lives.13 The stories that we tell about our lives have important consequences influencing how we feel about ourselves and our relationships, they can even shape the types of attachments we form.14 Having a unique shared story with our children developed through play can be a wonderful way of connecting and transforming our relationships.

8. Play is Learning

Children learn about themselves, their relationships and the world around them through immersing themselves in all kinds of play. Children can develop their physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills through play.15 16 17 In her Big Book of Unschooling, Sandra Dodd describes how parents can facilitate their children’s learning through play by gathering interesting resources and by being playful in their everyday interactions, such as washing up and doing the gardening.18

Joseph Chilton Pearce explains why play IS learning.

By joining our children in play and helping to facilitate their explorations, we can help open up the world to them and make it more accessible. I have noticed that when I am playing collaboratively with my daughters, they are often able to solve problems, play games, and develop new stories that they might not be able to do alone.

Soviet psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky introduced an idea called the “zone of proximal development,” which he defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” to describe this phenomenon.19 20

In his innovative “hole in the wall” experiments Sugata Mitra found that children learn more effectively in the presence of a friendly and trusted adult, a “granny figure” who offered support and encouragement – which has led on to his work with The Granny Cloud.21 22  We can see how a parent’s attentive and responsive presence can provide support and scaffolding that enables a child to explore a problem or to complete a task which they may not have been able to achieve alone.

A parent can facilitate play in ways that their individual child enjoys. This could involve observing a child playing quietly, playing alongside or together with a child, being led by the child, and playing collaboratively. A parent can bring their own experience and offer ideas that the child might like, and may stimulate new play ideas and narratives. It is a vital part of the process and partnership that the parent listens and observes how their child responds to their presence and interactions. How this might look in action will depend upon the individual child and the kind of relationship they have with the parent.

9. Playing With the Tools of Our Culture

Children enjoy engaging in different types of play and there may be some types of play that we prefer and find it easier to engage in than others. Our children will have unique preferences and while we can suggest new ideas and help facilitate different types of play our children will benefit most when they are engaging in play that is meaningful and enjoyable to them. Peter Gray has made some interesting observations on the cultural and evolutionary value of play. He describes how children gravitate towards playing with and exploring the tools that are important to master in their culture.15

Children are often curious about and are drawn to playing with computers and other digital media as they recognize the value and significance that they have in our lives, both in the present and in the future. Digital media offer so many diverse opportunities for children to play, have fun, and engage in rich and varied learning experiences. For example, multiplayer online servers enable parents and children to connect and play in collaborative ways, alongside other families from around the world.

When we play Minecaft with our daughters, we develop imaginative and creative role play scenarios where we are the owners and visitors to houses, shops, cafes, forests, and various structures we have built, such as giant glass biomes or ice-cream houses. We farm, look after animals, go mining together, and sometimes we overcome various natural disasters together, which requires joint ingenuity to figure out and come up with solutions. We have lots of fun, shared experiences, and stories. As parents, we can help partner our children as they get to know the game, helping them to explore, and facilitating the game environment – for example, helping to navigate various obstacles or problems they might encounter while playing, animals let loose by accident, floods that may occur, and generally collaborating and having fun playing with ideas.

Of course, children can know more than their parents about the games that they are playing but we can still partner them by offering our interest, engagement, and enthusiam. They might like us to help them with typing, researching new commands and strategies, or new game ideas, and we may be able to support them in navigating social situations they encounter when they are playing with others.

10. Play to Heal

Studies have confirmed the potential for play to heal and transform children’s lives.23 24 25 In her book Attachment Play, Aletha Solter explores the research in this area and explains the important role that parents can have in playing with their children, not only in a therapeutic context but in their everyday lives.3

For example, the birth of a new baby is a time of adjustment for the whole family, but particularly for the siblings. Playing together can enable relationships to heal. In our play, my daughters have been able to express, explore, and play creatively with feelings and ideas about their relationships with each other and that has brought us all closer. As our daughters have grown, we have continued to play and we have developed new shared stories and experiences about our relationships and our lives together.

In Attachment Play, Solter describes nine types of play that we can engage in with our children that can help us deepen our attachment relationships with them: 3

  • Non-directive child-centered play
  • Symbolic play with specific props or themes
  • Contingency play
  • Nonsense play
  • Separation games
  • Power-reversal games
  • Regression games
  • Activities with body contact
  • Cooperative games and activities

Playing with Our Children is Not Always Easy

If playing with our children is something that our children love and we know has many benefits, why is it that parents can find it so difficult to play?

Play depends on a parent’s ability to be able to emotionally connect with their child, being prepared to put aside their own agenda and take the child’s lead. If a parent is feeling disconnected, stressed, and unsupported, they may find it difficult to connect on an emotional level as they may be too preoccupied with their own needs. Play also involves us letting go of control and this, in itself, may raise anxiety and we may feel lost without being given explicit directions.

If we have not been used to feeling relaxed and being playful, we may find it hard to be relaxed and playful with our children. Many of us grew up in families where our parents valued independence and children were expected to be able to play independently of adults. We may not have had many positive memories of playing with our parents and/or we may have lost our ability to connect with those experiences on an emotional level. As a result, we may not know how to respond to our children’s requests to engage with them in playful ways. It can also be hard to set aside time to play, free from distractions of our everyday lives and play in ways where we are really engaged and connected.

If our children have not experienced us as being open and responsive when they have tried to connect in playful ways, they may stop asking.

“If they don’t think we will play, they may not even ask. They just go about their business, and we go about ours, and we all miss chance after chance to re-connect.” Lawrence Cohen 1

Learning How to Play

It is never too late to be playful and to re-connect with our children. It might require some creativity, presence, understanding, and a willingness to work through our blocks or put them aside so that we can prioritize play.

Pam Laricchia interviewed unschooling mom Jody Lily about her experience of playing with her three children. You can listen to their interview and read more about it on Pam’s blog.

If a parent is not sure what type of play their child enjoys, they can find out by spending time with them, observing and getting to know their interests, their likes and dislikes, making suggestions, being playful, and seeing how their child responds.

Here are a few of the games we have played and each family will develop their own unique games that are meaningful to them:

  • Rough and tumble / roughhousing
  • Build forts and houses using sheets and giant cardboard boxes
  • Hide and Seek
  • Chase
  • Role play – developing fun characters emerging from our children’s interests: hatching dinosaurs, dragons, battling Pokemon characters.
  • The Love Trap – parents hold out there arms and catch their child in the ‘Love Trap’.
  • Love Tug of War – Parents ‘fight’ over who will win the child pulling them in all directions ‘She’s mine’!
  • Flying, jumping and racing up and down the stairs
  • Dancing to music
  • Wrestling
  • Pillow Fights
  • Sand, water and mud play – including toys, scenes and stories
  • Imaginative play with toys – trains, Playmobil, dinosaurs
  • Constructive, role play & stories – Lego, Minecraft
  • Playing video games and Apps together

In my own experience, play seems to run more smoothly when I am able to relax, try things out, take risks, and make mistakes. I offer ideas in a tentative spirit and I don’t mind if my ideas are accepted or rejected. When I am listening and I am present with them, I can find out what ideas they like and what brings joy. While playing, you don’t need to teach, comment, correct, or analyze play; rather try to focus on being with your child in the moment.3


  1. Cohen, L. (2012) Playful Parenting. Ballantine Books.
  2. A History of Play Therapy
  3. Solter, A. J. (2013). Attachment Play: How to solve children’s behaviour problems with play, laughter and connection. Shining Star Press.
  4. Buchheim, A., Heinrichs, M., George, C., Pakorny, D., Koops, E., Henningsen, P., O’connor, M-F. & Gundel, H. (2009). Oxytocin Enhances the Experience of Attachment Security. Psychoneuroendocrinology.
  5. Reim, M.M., Van LJzendoorn, M.H., Tops, M., Boksem, M.A., Rombouts, S.A., Bakermans- Kranenberg, M.J. (2012). No Laughing Matter: Intranasal Oxytocin Administration Changes Functional Brain Connectivity During Exposure to Infant Laughter. 37 (5). Neuropsychopharmacology.
  6. Sunderland, M. (2006). Science of parenting: practical guidance on sleep, crying, play, and building emotional well-being for life. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
  7. Hoffman, J. & Russ, S. (2012) Creativity, Play and Emotional Regulation. Psychology of Aeshetics, Creativity & the Arts. American Psychological Association.
  8. Stern, D. N. (2002). The First Relationship: Infant and Mother. Harvard University Press.
  9. Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. Routledge.
  10. Jones, Gerard. (2008). Killing Monsters: Our Children’s Need for Fantasy, Heroism and Make Believe Violence. Basic Books.
  11. Jones, Gerard. (2000) Violent Media is Good For Kids. Mother Jones.
  12. Epston, E. Freeman, J. & Lobovits, D. (1997). Playful Approaches to Serious Problems: Narrative Therapy with Children and their Families. W. W. Norton & Company.
  13. Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam Books
  14. Gray, P. (2015). Free to Learn. Basic Books.
  15. Narvaez, D. , Polcari, K. & Ekwueme, P. (2014). Why Play With A Child. Psychology Today.
  16. Priesnitz, W. (2015) Playing Together: Games that Teach Cooperation not Competition. Child's Play Magazine.
  17. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
  18. McLeod, Saul. (2010) Zone of Proximal Development. Reddy, L. A., Files-Hall, T. M, & Schaefer, C. E. (2005). Empirically Based Play Interventions for Children. American Psychological Association.
  19. Cadwalladr, C. (2015) The Granny Cloud. The Guardian.
  20. Mitra, Sugata. TED Talk. (2013).
  21. Reddy, L. A., Files-Hall, T. M, & Schaefer, C. E. (2005). Empirically Based Play Interventions for Children. American Psychological Association.
  22. Thomas, J. (2011). An Effective Way of Alleviating Children’s Emotional, Behavioural and Mental Health Problems. Play Therapy UK. Press.
  23. Theraplay Institute
  24. Dodd, S. (2009). The Big Book of Unschooling.

Emma Forde is an unschooling parent and loves spending time with her two daughters ages nine and five and husband John Forde in the South West of England. Before having children, Emma gained her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Plymouth University, UK and went on to work as a Clinical Psychologist with Children and Families.

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