Your guide to parenting in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts

By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

The big idea behind Providence Children’s Museum is that the best kind of learning happens through play.  Kids learn all kinds of important things when they follow their own interests, make choices, try things out, solve their own problems, create their own characters and situations — by playing.  As an educator, I am a true believer in this approach.

As a parent and grandparent and a friend of parents, grandparents and kids, I am also convinced that play serves an important role in family dynamics.  I advocate for playing with your kids — not interfering in their independent play, but taking a playful attitude to parenting whenever you can.

A simple example of what I’m talking about: a few days ago, in the midst of the get up, eat your breakfast, get dressed, we’re going to be late routine, I said to 9-year-old Finn, “Brush your tooth.”

“My tooth?” he said, “Brush my tooth?” and headed off to the bathroom chuckling instead of complaining.  It was just a moment of silliness but it softened the nag element.  His giggles made me happy and my impatience dissipated.  A playful attitude can change everything!

I highly recommend play as a hedge against irritation.  You know those recurring trouble spots — fussing about going to bed, picky eating, sibling scuffles — that really frustrate you.  Fend them off by getting playful before you get annoyed.   Maybe your kid is pokey about getting dressed in the morning.  Challenge her to a getting-dressed race and be really goofy about it.  Act as if you are hurrying as fast as you can but make silly mistakes (like putting on your jacket inside out) that slow you down so that she wins.  When you’re both laughing, it’s really hard to be angry at each other.  Let’s face it, the only way you can win a battle of wills with a child is by not engaging in one.

Beyond keeping the peace, playing with your kids lets them know you’re paying attention to them.  From their point of view, it can seem that your attention centers on keeping them safe and making sure they wash their hands and do their homework.  When you play with them, you let them know you enjoy them and that feels really good — to the kids and to the grown-ups, too.

Parents are busy, but playing with your kids really doesn’t need to take a lot of time.  You can fit it in with things you’re doing anyway.  A car ride, for example, is the perfect time for singing together.  My grandkids and I like songs that let the singers make up verses as they sing.  “Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow” is a good one.  The kids sing, “Did you ever see a giraffe…” and I rhyme it with something funny, “in a bubble bath!”  They lead and I respond to them.  We’re as silly as we can be and have a lot of fun.

Kids play all the time, so it’s easy to join them.  Say you’re making dinner and your child comes in and roars.  “Yikes!  A lion!,” you say and, to prevent a lion attack, you give her a green bean.  Or you’re sitting in a waiting room and he’s playing with his little cars.  Take one and join his game.  Vrooom!  You can set a place at the table for her imaginary friend and include the figment in the conversation.

Why not play with your kids as often as possible?  It makes life easier, it makes everyone happier, it’s good for them, it’s good for you — and it’s FUN!

For more playful tips, check out “Play With Your Kids! A How-To, Why-To Guide for Parents” by Providence Children’s Museum.  The booklet was created to inspire families to play and learn together and is available in English and Spanish.  Get your copy in the Museum Gift Shop for only $3.00; click here to learn more about the guide.

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