Last month, my brother and sister-in-law brought their kids, ages 2 and 5, over to see the new apartment I share with my husband. On the day of their visit, I was brimming with trepidation for one big reason: I have no idea how to play with kids.
Although we don’t have children of our own, we see our niece and nephew regularly, and yet every time I play with them, I feel like I’m on a bad first date where I’m trying way too hard to make a connection. I just become this awkward weirdo who doesn’t remember how to have fun.
In my panic, I talk nervously at them while also trying to stage-manage the situation. “That’s a cute unicorn, what’s his name? Oh, it’s a her, sorry. No, I don’t think she wants to eat all the hummus and then ride the kitty, but sure, OK, go for it! How about we not throw shoes at your sister’s face? Oh, they’re magic shoes? Well that’s — nice. What if I hold onto them so no one gets hurt from the magic? I’m not allowed to because they only work for people who believe? Cool, cool. I’ll just sit here humming the ‘Paw Patrol’ theme until someone tells me what to do next.”
I almost always leave these play sessions feeling like there’s something inherently wrong with me. However, I’ve learned that lots of adults, even parents, feel this way about playing with kids. The reason is somewhat depressing: Many of us have gotten too self-conscious to let go and truly commit to unbridled play.
“Play does not come [as] naturally to adults,” says Priya Driscoll, early-childhood education department head at Mills College in Oakland, California. “We know that our society has created barriers, or that adults feel barriers that are preventing them from engaging in their own play.”
There are social and cultural expectations of adults to be caretakers first and foremost, and that can inhibit their ability to play freely with kids. Then there are the unfortunate adults who didn’t get to play much as children, and thus don’t feel comfortable doing it now. And others may simply feel that, with all their adult responsibilities, play is a waste of time.
“Often there is a feeling that if you get involved in something that appears purposeless and frivolous that that’s not part of our role as adults,” says Stuart Brown, a doctor who founded of the National Institute for Play.
Regular play, however, is vital to our development and well-being — as children and as adults. Play helps children develop the physical, cognitive, social and emotional tools they’ll need to become well-adjusted adults. It’s why play was declared a fundamental human right by the United Nations. Perhaps most importantly, according to Brown, play also helps children discover an “authentic sense of self.”
That said, for children to be able to make that inner connection, they need to engage in spontaneous, undirected play. When adults try to control play sessions too much, they can impede a child’s self-discovery, which can, in turn, lead to emotional and psychological issues down the road. As difficult as it may be to let go and not micromanage a play session, that freedom is really where the most benefits of play lie.
Spontaneous play has similar benefits for adults, whether it’s with kids or other grown people. “There’s more drive and urgency to play in infancy and childhood than there is later in life, but the design of us Homo sapiens is to stay playful for a significant portion of our lives,” Brown says. Not only does play make us happier and less stressed, but it also allows us to flex our creative muscles, which can ultimately help us be more successful in an ever-adapting society.
Once you reinvigorate those play muscles, it gets much easier to connect with your young loved ones. “We have to rediscover our own play in order to be comfortable playing with children,” Driscoll says.
If you feel like you’re in touch with your playful adult side but the playroom and play masters (aka kids) still intimidate you, there are ways to get the ball rolling. They boil down to four words: watch, listen, respond, repeat.
Rather than trying to manage everything, take a step back and just notice what the child is doing. “Give yourself permission to have that space to observe, instead of always thinking, ‘I have to keep my child safe, I have to be in charge,’” Driscoll suggests.
“Look closely at a child, and see what really engages them — what gets them motivated, what gives them a sense of pleasure. You begin to sense that if you respond to their natural proclivity, you’ll be playful with them,” Brown says.
It’s also about collaborating, or “yes and-ing” as my improv coach would say. “Share in their attention,” Driscoll suggests. “Respond to them instead of trying to direct their play. Let them take the lead.”
If you’re dealing with an infant, faces and sounds are a great place to start. Babies can process faces better than toys, so simply making funny faces at them should get things going. Hearing your voice, especially if you use baby talk, is also a proven way to engage their minds. Try reading them books with pictures of faces, or simply take them on a tour of your house or neighborhood and narrate what’s going on around you. If they’re at an age where they know a word or two, make sure you respond encouragingly when they interject into your narration. This helps them learn language.
You might even try switching up your perspective to stop your adult brain from hijacking a play session. Get down on the ground and crawl with your toddler. See what the world looks like if you hang upside down on the monkey bars with a 5-year-old. If you give yourself permission to not be the designated driver for a bit, you might experience flashes of the surprise and wonder the child you’re playing with sees all the time.
Lastly, don’t forget that every child plays a little differently, because, like all humans, they have a unique set of passions. As such, any “best practices” for playing with kids should be disregarded. One may love kickball, while another just wants to draw salamanders or play the kazoo. There’s no right way to set up play experiences for kids. The best you can do is support what they seem to like and get involved in any way that feels right.
That said, the child you’re playing with shouldn’t get to dictate all aspects of the play session. Play should also be about compromise and negotiation. So if you don’t want to pretend to be the dinosaur kidnapper for the 23rd time in a row, make that clear. That way, they’ll hopefully learn that playtime is a collaboration.
Ultimately, the more you play with kids, the easier it will get. One day, it may even become an integral part of your own play routine as an adult. I’m not quite there yet, but having implemented some of the above in my most recent play session with my niece and nephew, I can say I already feel a little better about giving up some of that adult control. If all of us adults can let go and truly give ourselves over to play, I think we’ll start to see what’s so great about being a unicorn that eats hummus and rides kitties.
Hirschlag is a writer and editor at weather.com. Her work has been featured in Cosmo, Allure, Audubon, HuffPost, Mic, Teen Vogue, McSweeney’s and elsewhere.