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Tuesday, October 4, 2022
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Go Play – Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

There are times my four-year-old begs me to play with her and other times she can contentedly play by herself.

Her older brother, now seven, had me to himself for so long that once his world turned upside down and he got used to me being unavailable (with a colicky baby in my arms) he hardly ever expected to have me spend one-on-one playtime with him again. What’s the best balance between playing with my children and expecting them to entertain (and fend for) themselves?

Not Always Available

Dear Not Always Available,

Both are important. Your children benefit from playing with you since you are a steadfast figure in their lives, highly invested in their moment-to-moment discoveries of how the world works and how they can be successful in it. Hopefully your older child found other well-qualified play partners when you were tied up with his sister. All significant adults (including the child’s other parent!) add their own guiding influence with diverse life experiences, knowledge, and interests while shoring up the basic values they have in common with you.
Following a child’s lead during play, the adult adds vocabulary, clarifies concepts, guides motor skills, as well as shapes the values she will carry into adulthood. Additionally, when you play with your child you can more easily control the safety of what she’s doing. Playtime with your child also gives you a view of her current interests and skills as well as her emotional life. (When she is pretending that she is the powerful princess who can drive off the menacing dragon, it’s a good sign she has self-confidence!) The hours you spend playing together, along with your daily routines of care, reinforce the loving relationship between you. So long as you are devoting enough time to play with her – at least an hour a day for a preschooler – you will be a positive influence on her development.

Unsupervised or “free play” is important, too, but for other benefits. The typical stages of play, beginning in infancy, involve longer and longer periods of time in which a child explores the physical realities of the world and, from around age two on, in which she explores the infinite world of her imagination. Her choices of what to explore and what to pretend help her to know herself, too. Nowadays, so much of children’s time is structured for them that their sense of initiative and self-determination may be impaired. Typical classes and other organized activities for young children are chiefly directed by the adults. The adult chooses the content, timing, and materials to use toward some pre-planned objective. Children’s television shows and movies are also pre-contrived from beginning to end before the child even begins to watch.
Ongoing research by Yuko Munakata, Jane Barker and others at the University of Colorado suggests a connection between amount of time for free play (among the six-year-olds in their study) and a child’s “self-directed executive function” or self-control. The more time spent, as you say, entertaining and fending for themselves, the better the children in the study were able to control their impulses and emotions. As for safety concerns, advocates for ample unsupervised play, especially for ages five and up, argue that this gives a child more experience with balance and agility in using her body, offsetting her risks of getting hurt.

Believe it or not, in a few years you’ll be wondering why you don’t see much of your children. Your four-year-old should be developing the social skills needed to successfully play with another child. Naturally, this comes from spending blocks of time with a compatible age mate without direct guidance from an adult. Your seven-year-old is getting close to the age when he should prefer to spend time with his friends over his family. From social interactions with his peers he will learn to trust and to be trusted, and most importantly, that he is worthy of friendship.

Child development theory holds that your children are on a predictable path as they make their way toward independence. While they are still generously being offered, try to have enough loose time in your days to be available for those precious invitations to play.

Dr. Debbie

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.



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