For many younger children, the language of their world is play. When fathers don’t speak that language, but instead try to relate in an adult way, kids can’t understand or relate, and may experience feelings of frustration, isolation, or ignorance. Sometimes fathers feel the lack of connection, too. But we can prevent it—and strengthen the bonds with our children—by learning their language of play.
There are many benefits to child’s play: Children learn to communicate and cope with problems; they make connections and learn about limits and morals; and they develop intellectually. Playing with Dad confirms some very important truths to a child: that the child is highly valued by a very important person in his life, that he is growing more competent in skills and wisdom, and that he belongs. The great thing is, play comes naturally to most dads. Some of us just need to do it more.
Dad, I encourage you to consistently set aside time to play with your children. Lawrence Cohen, author of a book called Playful Parenting, reminds us that our goal should not be to move into our child’s world, but to visit their world through play. It requires us to step down from our adult language and concrete thinking, and speak the language of play with our children.
Here are five things to remember:
● It isn’t about you. Ask your child what he wants to do and allow him to lead.
● Be childlike. The doorway to your child’s world is a small one. Get down on your child’s level. (And remember, there’s no room for embarrassment.)
● Make play a priority. Don’t let this important time with your child get pushed to the back burner. Schedule regular playtimes together.
● Play hard. Your child knows when you’re only playing half-heartedly. You have to be completely, actively involved.
● Have fun. Laughter is a good gauge for how well the play is going. Don’t worry so much about the rules or keeping score. Just relax and enjoy being together.
- Play “lion” with your young children. Chase them around on your hands and knees, and when you catch them, attack with growls, hugs and kisses.
- If your toddler wants to play the same thing over and over again, do it!
- Schedule a “play” activity with your older child this weekend. Let him or her decide what you do together.
- Resurrect some of the fun things you used to do as a child—playing catch, footraces, board games, throwing the frisbee, etc.
George R. Williams is the Executive Director of the Urban Fathering Partnership at the National Center for Fathering, and a marriage and family therapist. George and his wife Trudy have three boys and a daughter and live in the greater Kansas City area.