by Kathy Eugster
Do you know the difference between supervising your child in play and engaging with your child in play?
I think it is important for parents to understand the difference between being in either a supervisor role or a play partner role with their children. Although there is definitely some overlap with these two roles, it is very helpful to keep in mind some important differences.
Both of these roles are important and necessary for parents to take on. Children need supervision from adults at all times. However, play between parent and child is something that can be done for specific periods of time during the day. Parents are not expected to play with their children nonstop!
It is important for parents to play an active role in supervising children’s play. One of the main reasons for parental supervision during play is to ensure safety. It is the parent’s responsibility to keep their child from getting hurt or hurting others and away from dangerous materials or situations.
In addition to ensuring safety, parents can also take on the role of teacher to guide and support their children when they supervise their children at play.
- When parents supervise children’s play, they can use it as an opportunity to teach social skills. Skills like taking turns, sharing, and following rules are all important skills that children need to learn and parents can play an important role in teaching these skills to their children during playtime.
- When parents supervise children’s play, they can provide guidance to their children to support learning and development of various skills, for example physical skills such as climbing or kicking, and fine motor skills for constructing or making things. Parents can also encourage creativity and imagination in their children by making suggestions and providing ideas.
Researchers have identified the following adult behaviors as important for determining the level of supervision:
- attention (e.g., watching the child),
- proximity (e.g., within versus beyond reach of the child), and
- continuity (e.g., sustained versus intermittent attention)
With direct supervision, the child is within sight and range and is being watched continuously. With indirect supervision, the child may be intermittently out of sight, for example in another room, and not being seen or heard directly, but is still being monitored and checked on periodically.
Parents will take into account the age, developmental level, and individual needs of their child as they determine the level of supervision required for each situation and environment. Depending on a child’s age, supervision will look different at different stages of a child’s development. As children grow and develop, they need opportunities to practice independence and build self-confidence and indirect supervision encourages these skills.
An important point to note here, however, is that most parents are extremely busy and it is very common for parents to be multi-tasking. Parents who are indirectly supervising their children may be also paying attention to their phones, other adults, other children, chores, and work activities. The downside with this is that to children, their parents can seem inattentive, distant, aloof, and uninterested.
Children not only need supervision, they also need focused positive attention from a parent with no distractions. Playtime between parent and child is an ideal way to provide this important and necessary need for attention to a child. Not only that, it also builds and strengthens the parent-child relationship and encourages bonding. Please see my other Blogs on parent-child play here for lots more information.
Let’s look at what playtime between parent and child might look like. I have outlined the following points to help you set up your playtime to make it easy and fun.
- Provide focused positive attention: This is where you provide 100% of your attention to your child by observing and listening directly to them. You are not distant, and are positioned close enough to watch your child and even make eye contact, but not so close as to be intrusive.
- Have no distractions present: Distractions such as phones, other adults, chores, and work activities would be ignored or put aside until after playtime. You may have to split your attention among two or more children. That being said, it is wonderful (and easier for you!) if you can find time to play one-to-one with a child.
- Set a specific period of time: It can be very difficult for parents to find time to engage in play with their child. The good news is, playtime between you and your child does not need to last for hours at a time! Focused playtimes between parent and child of around thirty minutes are ideal, however, shorter playtimes, even between five and fifteen minutes, can also be very beneficial for children and generally more manageable for parents.
- Minimal demands placed on your child: Other than keeping the playtime safe and nondestructive, you don’t need to demand a lot from your child. With playtime, parents and children just need to enjoy each other’s company and have fun together.
Use these simple skills: Parents may be unaware of how easy and enjoyable it is playing with their children using a few simple skills.
- Describe your child’s actions
- Identify any feelings your notice
- Paraphrase what your child tells you
- Acknowledge efforts and strengths as well as achievements
- Limit unsafe or destructive behaviors
Here’s something important to think about: You don’t need to entertain your child; just let your child control how the play unfolds as long as it stays safe and nondestructive.
Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:
- Are you able to tell the difference between supervising your child and playing with your child?
- Is your child able to spend time playing with you, with other children, and independently on their own?
Morrongiello, B. A., Kane, A., & Zdzieborski, D. (2011). Parental supervision of young elementary-school children at home. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Vol. 36, Issue 6, pp 708-717. https://doi.org/10.1093/jpepsy/jsq065
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2023.
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