Have you tried playing with your children lately?  Like, really playing.  For any length of time?  It’s unexpectedly difficult.  Whether you’re creating a fantasy world, and role playing, or sitting down to a board game, it takes a certain amount of creative energy and patience that can become challenging after a long day.  If you’ve experienced this it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to realize that play is work that requires us to use a wide range of skills.

Quick disclaimer, I’m not a psychologist.  I studied Mathematics in college and consider myself a professional problem solver.  In addition, I’m a very dedicated and engaged father.  As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I were thrust into a world of child development professionals when my son was very young. These professionals were kind and generous enough to coach us how we could change to better help our son overcome his social challenges.  I hope I can pass along what I’ve learned through my experience.

What do I mean by play?

To me, the families designated play-maker, it’s anything that the child feels is fun, forces him/her to think, react, listen, and be creative.  Having fun is incentive to work.  Playing independently certainly checks off some of those boxes.  I believe very strongly that being able to entertain oneself (not with a device) is an important skill.  But when you introduce competing or cooperating interests into the equation, either a parent(s), sibling(s), or friend(s), you get an entirely different dynamic that can teach your child critical social skills.  Putting strangers into the equation yields even more dynamics.

What social skills are learned through play?

I’m sure you’ve heard of EQ, or emotional IQ.  It’s usually used to refer to an adult’s ability to get along well with others.  It’s also a prime indicator of success. Statistics show that adults with a higher EQ generally make more money and have better career opportunities.  Those skills are either learned at a young age, and so seem natural, or cost you thousands of dollars trying to correct in therapy.  Believe me, I’ve spent a few dollars at the therapist…

What’s important to know as a parent is that you can give your children an advantage in life by teaching them these skills now through play.  There’s substantial research concluding that play is a critical tool in developing the following skills:

  • Making friends easily
  • Expressing their emotions in a healthy way
  • Resolving conflicts appropriately
  • Showing empathy
  • Following rules and directions
  • Waiting their turn
  • Interacting with others in a positive manner
  • Dealing with frustration
  • Managing their anger appropriately
  • Problem solving
  • Self-soothing
  • Listening and communicating clearly
  • Working well with others
  • Setting and achieving realistic goals
  • Having a healthy self-esteem
  • Doing well academically
  • Exhibiting self-control
  • Making better choices
  • Are able to adapt to major life changes

I have to admit, I still struggle with some of these.  I can only imagine where my life would be had I been given a strong foundation as a child.  The good news is that’s play is the perfect tool.

As a parent, what should our role be in fostering play in our children’s lives?

I believe that as a parent we should be an “Actors Director” for our kids. We need to be able to relate, and get our hands dirty, but we also need to see the big picture, have a vision, and bring other actors into the mix.  For me that means seeking out games that will challenge Tiago, teaching him how to play certain games, organizing playdates with kids he looks up to, and whenever I can I’ll jump in and do some serious playing.

What I don’t do is leave his play to chance.  Even if I’m not the one at the playdate, or sitting down playing with him, I like to have some input and visibility into it.

How do I get started?

The answer really depends on where you are right now.  Some of you may already organize and promote a lot of play in your child’s lives.  Others may just let it happen naturally.  If you’re in the camp of just letting it happen naturally, here’s what I would suggest as a slow introduction to a more intentional approach to play.

  1. Unstructured, individual playtime each day (get into a routine)
  2. Mix-in a parent or caregiver during playtime
  3. Identify games that develop certain skills, incorporate them
  4. Mix-in playdates with friends (unstructured play)
  5. Add specific games to the playdates for strengthening/building skills

How long it takes you to get this running like a well-oiled machine depends on you.  To help you, each week we’ll be posting new games to our Facebook page that are geared toward social skill building.  And, if you download our app it’s super easy to arrange, manage, and get chaperones for your playdates.

Good luck on your journey!  You’re on your way to raising rock-star kids!

-Matthew Perry (co-founder/CEO)


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