In these busy times, when parents and children have schedules packed to the max, family closeness can fall by the wayside. Most of us have to make an effort to guarantee that work, school, sports, and chores don’t swallow up the very relationships that make those things important.
When is the last time you played or goofed around with your child? Can you remember back that far? Many parents can’t. Life has made us so serious, so focused, that we’ve lost the joy of the simple things, and play was one of the first to go.
But as any child instinctively knows, play is essential to life. It brightens the heart and lightens the spirit. For kids, who live closer than we do to nature, play is as spontaneous as breathing. Sadly, most grown-ups have lost that skill. Our children can be our refresher course.
Playing with your child brings you back to the present, reminds you of what matters, and slows you down long enough to smell the roses. It also connects you emotionally with your child, rebuilding the closeness that the fast-paced, boring routines of life are all too quick to strip away.
Playing together is even more important for your child than it is for you, because she needs to feel close to you to feel loved and happy. If you’ve neglected time together for long enough, it may appear that your child isn’t interested in your attentions. She may even tell you as much. But that’s just bluster, hiding the fear that you will disappoint her again if she lets herself wish for time alone with you. If you initiate playing together, and do it at frequent intervals, even the most aloof pre-teen will start to look forward to it and, in time, throw herself into the fun.
What kind of playing should you do? Pay attention to the activities your child engages in: his idea of enjoyment. If these things seem boring to you, try hanging out nearby, observing as he does them, with words that express your curiosity. You just may find you actually develop a genuine interest. If your child is a couch potato, take up your perch on the couch beside him, but after you’re allowed “in,” initiate some play that might be more pleasant than TV.
Think back to what you did as a child that was memorable, especially activities you did with your parents that stay with you still. Think about things that are free or cost little, that involve experiencing life together. Start a list of ideas as they come, and add any of the following that you resonate with:
- Raking stacks of autumn leaves, then jumping or rolling in them
- Taking a hike through the forest preserve
- Skating at the roller rink together
- Walking the dog, taking turns with the rope
- Reading comics or joke books together (or books of poetry or stories)
- Making cookies, pizza or a cake
- Building a fort out of snow or chairs and blankets
- Playing hide and seek, hide the thimble, cards or board games
- Lying on a blanket looking up at the stars
- Sitting in front of the wood stove in a dark room, telling stories
- Making shadow figures on the wall with your hands and a flashlight
- Having a treasure hunt
- Roasting marshmallows over a fire
- Watching a parade
- Going to the aquarium, zoo or museum
- Flying kites together
- Building something
- Making a scrapbook
- Making up a silly poem or song
- Watching a movie, with popcorn and no interruptions
- Playing a memory game, like “I’m going to Grandma’s house, and in my suitcase I’m going to pack …”
- Getting up early to watch the sunrise from a hill
- Playing games of pretend
- Going somewhere special, like the beach
- Having a pancake picnic in the snow
Playing together is different than finding entertaining activities for your child. Play involves you, while entertainment excuses you from the picture. If you find yourself saying, “But my schedule is too busy for any of the things on that list,” consider whether your schedule needs some pruning. After all, who’s going to remember in 20 years if you stay late at work or not next Tuesday? But will your child ever forget the Tuesday you ride the rollercoaster together?
Closeness with a child cannot be taken for granted. Like any other relationship, it will slip away unless it’s made a priority. Nothing builds trust and bonding with a child like sharing a moment of silliness and laughter. Come together for light-hearted play, and you just may find your child opens up about serious subjects. The relaxed atmosphere of play helps us let our guard down and reveal more of ourselves.
When you play together, let your child feel like the most important person in your world. Give him your undivided attention: no cell phones, no interruptions, no slipping into your own private thoughts. Be present – body, mind and spirit. Then let yourself do whatever comes naturally, with the abandon you felt when you yourself were a child. Your instincts will be your guide.
Growing closer through play is easy. It just takes dedicated moments, given on a fairly regular basis, so your child begins to count on having time with you.
Let your child re-teach you the wonderful secrets of play. You both will feel more secure and peaceful – and a whole lot happier, as the reason you do it all for, starts to come back to you.