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The Single Most Important Skill Parents Can Acquire is Playing

Written by Pam Leo   
Saturday, 01 December 2007 00:00
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As nearly as I have been able to translate it, “Na-Na-Na-Boo-Boo” is actually an invitation, even a plea to “come and play with me.” Our most important task as parents is securing and maintaining a strong bond with our children.

For a multitude of reasons, children growing up in today’s society are at great risk of not having a solid bond with their parents. One of those reasons is parents not having enough time to spend with their children. Another reason is how we spend the time we do have.

Though we may spend time with children building Lego’s, dressing dolls, playing board games or checkers, the kind of play children crave the most is the kind of play most parents do the least. This is the physically active play of chase and capture, hide and seek, piggybacks, pony rides, and the roughhouse wrestling that makes children giggle and laugh and ask for more, more, more. It is this kind of play that emotionally connects parents and children and strengthens their bond.

Most parents actively play with babies. We patty-cake, peek-a-boo and bounce them on our knees. We sacrifice all dignity doing silly things to make babies laugh. But once they grow bigger and can play by themselves or with other children we usually spend much less time actively playing with our children. There are some adults, often, but not always Dads, who seem to just naturally excel at this kind of physical play, but few children get as much as they need of this kind of play. Whether we don’t have the energy, are too distracted with things we feel we have to get done or we just never learned how because no one played that way with us, we usually aren’t as playful as our children beg us to be.

Even if playing doesn’t come naturally to us we can learn how to be more playful. Lawrence J. Cohen, author of my new favorite parenting book, Playful Parenting, says, “Unlike many personality changes we might like to make, better playing skills can be pretty easily learned.” I can confirm that what he says is true. I have never been one of those adults who excelled at physical play. I didn’t get much of that kind of play as a child; therefore, I didn’t do much of that kind of play with my children or my grandchildren. Since reading Cohen’s book, to the delight of my grandchildren and their friends, I’m getting pretty good at playing, roughhousing, and silliness.

For those parents like me, for whom physical play doesn’t just come naturally, learning to play is work. The exciting thing about the work of learning to play is that the payoff is priceless. The smiles, giggles, laughter, affection, and feeling of connectedness that bubble up from a rollicking playtime can change our whole day, even our whole relationship with a child. In my parenting series, “Meeting the Needs of Children,” I talk a lot about the importance of connecting with children and “filling their cups” by spending special time, one on one with them. Since reading Playful Parenting, I have experienced first hand the value of this kind of play and heard the excited reports of parents’ experiences with being more playful. I now see play as one the most important ways we can maintain a strong bond with our children.