by Kathy Eugster, MA
Some parents worry that they don’t spend enough time playing with their children and feel guilty if they are not spending extended periods of time playing together. Well, the good news is, short but frequent playtimes can be almost as beneficial as one longer playtime. And when I say short playtimes, I mean anything lasting 5 minutes or less! I call these short playtimes “Mini Playtimes” and they can be child-directed or parent-directed.
The recent research in neuroscience is informing us that frequent, positive, face-to-face interactions between parents and children are necessary for healthy brain and nervous system development in children. Short, fun play activities are ideal for providing these positive interactions to children. If you can intersperse several Mini Playtimes throughout the day, you are well on your way to supporting your child’s healthy brain and nervous system development.
You notice your child is playing on her own with her stuffed animals. You decide to do a Mini Child-Directed Playtime for 5 minutes.
- You sit beside your child and say something like, “I’ve got 5 minutes free now” and start by describing what you see your child doing by saying, “Oh, it looks like you’re lining up all your stuffed animals on the bed.”
- You continue describing objectively what your child is doing, for example, “Now you’re putting Spotty on top of the pillow … Oh, and Muffin is joining him now too … And Brownie is hiding under there.”
- Ideally, your child will say something about what is going on in the play, and you would just paraphrase back what she tells you without making any judgements or asking any questions. But if she says nothing, that’s okay too.
- If you notice a feeling coming up in the play, for example your child is making one of the animals play happily with another, you can identify the feeling by saying something like, “Looks like Spotty and Muffin are feeling excited to play together.” Or, if she makes one of the animals angry at another, you could say something like, “It seems like Muffin is angry with Brownie.”
- After 5 minutes, you could say something like, “Oh, 5 minutes is up, I have to go now” and get up and leave. Your child may or may not continue to play on her own.
Your child runs up to you and asks to watch a video. You decide to do a Mini Parent-Directed Playtime first for 3 minutes before you turn on the video.
- You decide to play the Paper Bag Game and give the directions for the game by saying something like, “Okay, before we turn on the video, let’s play this game for a few minutes. I will hide something in a paper bag, and then without looking into the bag, you will put your hand into the bag to feel what is inside it and tell me what it is without looking at it. Then, you can hide something in the bag for me to guess.”
- You and your child play this game for the next 3 minutes and then you would say something like, “Okay, our 3 minutes are up. I am putting the video on now.”
Your child is upset because his older brother has gone to play with a friend. You decide to do a Mini-Parent-Directed Playtime for 5 minutes.
- You engage your child in play by saying something like, “Let’s build a fort for your pirates with the blocks.” Then you start lining up the blocks in a square and putting some of the pirate figures inside the square, saying something like, “Okay, these guys are safe on the inside.”
- Then you get a dragon and take on that role by saying something like, “Grrrr, I’m going to find a way to get into this fort to steal the treasure.” You move the dragon around on the outside of the fort.
- Ideally, your child will engage in the play and make the pirates defend the fort. Keep on playing this imaginary play scenario with your child.
- When 5 minutes are up, you can say something like, “I have to go now, but why don’t you see if you can build another fort for these other pirates over here. It looks like there might be another dragon coming so they need to stay safe.” Ideally, this would encourage your child to continue on with the play scenario on his own.
You notice your child drawing something and you decide to do a Mini Child-Directed Playtime for 3 minutes.
- You sit down beside your child and start by describing what she is drawing by saying, “I can see you’re drawing a purple flower with lots of green leaves … Oh, and there’s the sun shining … And you’ve put a red flower over here.”
- You continue describing your child’s drawing objectively without praising what she has done. You also refrain from asking any questions about the drawing.
- Ideally, your child will tell you a bit about her drawing, but if she does not, that is not a problem. Feel good that you are paying close attention to your child and providing her with an accepting and non-judgemental environment, even if only for a few minutes.
- At the end of 3 minutes, you would get up and continue with your activities.
You notice your child is getting wound-up and you decide to do a Mini Parent-Directed Playtime for 3 minutes to re-direct your child to a quieter activity.
- You say something like, “I’ve got an idea for a fun game. Close your eyes and I am going to touch you gently with this cotton ball and then I will tell you to open your eyes and you will tell me where I touched you.”
- Remember to regulate your own nervous system by taking some deep breaths yourself and by moving and talking more slowly.
- Play the game at a slow and relaxed pace and then if you want, exchange roles and get your child to touch you with the cotton ball.
- After 3 minutes, give your child several more cotton balls and tell her she can make up her own game with them.
Your child is building something with the Lego. You decide to spend 5 minutes doing a Mini Child-Directed Playtime.
- You sit down beside your child and say something like, “I’ve got 5 minutes free now. I see you’re building something with the Lego.” Continue to describe what your child is doing, by saying something like, “Now you’re adding wheels to that piece … You’ve decided to put that fancy piece right there … Looks like you’re adding wings now.” Remember to be non-judgemental with your descriptions and not to ask any questions.
- If you notice your child is struggling to figure out how to put some pieces together, don’t jump in immediately to tell him what to do, but rather just acknowledge his struggle by saying something like, “Looks like that’s hard to put those blocks together, but you’re determined to get it.” Allow your child some time to master the task, but if he continues to struggle and maybe even asks for help, you can provide him with just enough help so that he can do the rest himself.
- Allow your child to use his creative skills to make what he wants with the Lego. Remember not to suggest anything to your child or tell your child how it “should” be done.
- Instead of praising your child for his achievement, you can say something like, “Looks like you are feeling happy with your creation.”
- At the end of 5 minutes, you can let your child know that you must move on to do something else.
Your child is setting up a school and asks you to be the teacher. You decide to spend 5 minutes doing a Mini-Child-Directed Playtime.
- You say something like, “Okay, I’ve got 5 minutes now. I’ll be the teacher.” Then, because your child asked you to be the teacher, you take on the teacher role and play out being a teacher the way you think your child wants you to. You could say something like, “Okay children, today we are going to study plants. Now I want you to draw a red flower.”
- Your child may correct you on what you are doing, and that is fine. Just follow her directions as long as what she is asking you to do is safe and non-destructive.
- Keep on playing the teacher role and at the end of 5 minutes, say “Okay, 5 minutes is up now, I have to stop playing.”
- Next time you have some free time, your child may pick up this theme of playing school with you as the teacher again, and this is wonderful; your child has invited you into her special world!
To Sum Up
You don’t have to spend hours every day playing with your child! However, frequent, short playtimes with your child that are either child-directed or parent-directed are extremely beneficial for your child’s healthy development. And, it’s such a great way to strengthen your relationship with your child too!
One last point:
Keep in mind that longer playtimes are also very beneficial for your child. Try to arrange at least one 30-minute playtime with your child once per week.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2022.
Please feel free to pass on this article to anyone you think might find it useful.