“Mama, will you play on the train with me?” my daughter asked, lining up the dining chairs to form a line of seats.
“Sure! Where’s my seat on the train?” I responded, thinking we were about to engage in some good, old-fashioned pretend-play together. This is what childhood is supposed to be all about, right?
“You can sit riiiight here!” she responded. “Just give me your ticket first!”
I found a scrap of paper and folded it into a makeshift ticket. “Here you go!”
We enjoyed a couple more minutes of happily playing before things started to head south.
“All abooooooard!” I announced, getting into the game.
“NOOOOOO! I’m supposed to say that.”
I got up from the train.
“NOOOOOO! The train is still moving!”
I got back on board and gave her another ticket.
“NOOOOOO! You already gave me a ticket.”
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for us playing together. It probably wasn’t what my daughter had in mind either. I wanted to be the type of mom who enjoyed playing with her kids, who had fun with them. Was I not cut out for this?
We weren’t having fun because I was not actually playing. The definition of playing is to engage in an activity for enjoyment or recreation. It’s doing something out of joy, not out of obligation.
Not long after this scenario, I came across a thought-provoking article by developmental psychologist Peter Gray. He points out that playing serves an important purpose for children. They learn through play. Pretend-play gives them a chance to try on adult roles like preparing food, driving or using public transportation, doing yard work, or taking care of babies. As adults, we already have these skills, so pretend-play often bores us. Human brains are captivated by novelty and rehearsing new skills we know will come in handy. For adults, sitting down to role-play driving a car or making dinner is like sitting down to learn the alphabet – boring as all get out.
What do I do now? How should I spend time with my kids if not for playing? Isn’t playing together an important part of bonding and having quality time together?
Yes and no. Playing together is important, but again, the definition of play is having fun. Enjoying our time with our kids is what makes memories. Think about your own life. How many of your favorite moments involve someone else begrudgingly going through the motions to humor you? There's not much joy in that.
Playing should be a joy, not a duty. In other words, if you aren’t enjoying yourself, you aren’t really playing. The key to having fun playing together is to find a mutually enjoyable activity. I realized the reason we weren’t having fun together is that I wasn’t having fun.
Simple, but life changing. There are some things I know I cannot do with joy and thus I will decline to participate without guilt. Pretending we are cats? Nope. Driving toy cars or trains around? Can’t do it. An elaborate mommy and baby scenario? Bored to tears.
Instead, I try to fill our time together with things I enjoy that are also kid-friendly. For example:
First, it’s helpful to remember that asking us to play is a plea for connection. They want to hang out with us. They want to involve us in their worlds. They need us. We can often meet that need by finding another way to connect.
Have fun together in a way that’s fun for you to. That’s where true connection comes from. If our hearts are not in it, it usually shows.