Have you ever had the experience of meeting a stranger and connecting with them in a way that changes you? This happened to me years ago on a plane. The woman next to me started a conversation and we found we had some things in common- we both studied child development. We talked about our research and various things, but what touched my soul that day was a personal story she told me.
The week before in the predawn hours she went into each of her children's rooms and woke them to the promise of donuts and adventure. She drove her kids, bed hair and all, three hours away to the beach. They arrived just as the first pink streaks filled the sky and together they huddled under a blanket, munched donuts, and watched the sun rise over the ocean. Just because. Just because this is our one life and she wanted her kids to always remember THAT day, just because. She looked me straight in the eye and she said something along the lines of this:
"When you become a parent don't forget to play - do playful things, things an "adult" would never do."
This was such a beautiful sentiment and something so foreign to the rigid perfectionism that was serving me so well in graduate school. When she said those things to me, I got chills and I had a vision of the kind of Mom I wanted to be someday. And now that I am a Mom, I strive to be this way. Research shows that children whose parents often engage in physical and pretend play, have strong bonds with their parents and are more socially competent with their peers.
It was a long while from the time I met that woman and to when I became a mother. But her wisdom always stuck with me and when I heard about things that fit with her philosophy, I filed them away. Being playful as a parent is something that is constantly evolving, as your children grow and as your family changes, but here are seven habits that will stand the test of time.
They have mastered the super silly face response
This a perfect response to a tired and whiny child - a mocked shocked face or silly surprised fish face, really any silly face that shows you are surprised by their protests. Whines turn into giggles and while all may not be solved, usually you can move onto the next thing with a little less fuss and a few more smiles.
They bring play into the everyday
So, you child doesn't want to wash their hands, put on their shoes, go outside, go to the potty, leave the playdate and so on. Transitions from one activity to the next are hard for kids, as are everyday tasks. They are too busy playing to stop and take care of life things or move onto the next thing. The typical response from a parent may be to talk about consequences - if you don't brush your teeth you will get cavities - or to engage in a power struggle. The playful way is tojust keep playing. We play a game 'chasing' the cavity germs around the mouth when we brush teeth. You could sing a song or play a song to help make transitions fun. Or use a favorite toy, make the toy "talk" and ask your child to put on their pajamas. Or try using a story to encourage cooperation or a game to set limits.
They can appreciate (Potty) humor
Ok, admit that it was funny when your child made bathroom joke. Don't be afraid to laugh. And I promise you, if you make a potty joke back, they will belly laugh. Just have a rule like - potty jokes are only for home, not for preschool. And if they do crack a joke at school and their friends all laugh, what really is the harm?
Beyond the usual potty jokes which rarely fail, playful parents know when to infuse the day with laughter and they know how to make their kids laugh. Is your child tired or stressed? Has talking about it helped, but they need some cheering up? Or maybe it's just a rainy Saturday afternoon and the family is cooped up inside. We dress stuffed animals in our son's clothes, play silly rhyming games, pretend to be surprised by something totally normal, and generally are just goofy.
They make family traditions out of everyday situations
Being a playful parent means appreciating the moment. Getting on your child's level and living in that moment. This sense of presence is a gift from our children to us. It doesn't mean you have to do anything special, but just recognize what is already happening, name it and repeat it. Let's say your kids are running around after dinner acting like total goofballs. You join in (leaving the dishes for a moment) and say "It's the Tuesday Goof-Off." Or one afternoon your child takes out a game they want to play while wearing their super-hero cape. You say "It's Super-Hero Game Day!"
Join in, name it, repeat it and boom- a new family fun tradition is born.
They understand that having fun is just that - fun
I am all for connecting with your kids and having deep heart-to-hearts. That is important and cannot be discounted. But, especially with younger kids, connection happens through play. Yes, when we sit around the dinner table we can all talk about our day, but doesn't it sometimes feel forced? Instead, play a game like mad-libs or a family question game, or even read from a joke book.
Fun=connection=your child will open up when they need to.
They rough house
Next time your child acts grumpy or acts out when you reunite with them after a day of school and work, try playing a physical game with them. Hide and seek, chase, a hugging game - any kind of rough-housing. What level rough-housing you do depends on your child's age, temperament and also your temperament. The point is for it to be physical play which helps children (and adults) blow off steam and reconnect.
They share the beauty of the world with their kids
I love what that woman on the plane did with her kids. She was spontaneous and showed her children a beautiful part of the world. To raise a child who can look around and see beauty in nature and the world around them is an amazing gift. Stay up late on an air mattress in the backyard and gaze at the stars, wake up early and watch the sunrise over a lake or at the beach, have a picnic at a park for dinner on a weeknight in the summer, surprise the kids and take them to look at Christmas lights at bedtime, or anything else that would show your kids the beauty of this world. Be spontaneous and live this one life to it's absolute fullest!
Here is a printable to remind you to get out and play every single day!
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Nurture and Thrive. It has been republished here with permission.