1) Be present. Children only feel comfortable to play when they feel safe. No one, adults included, feels like playing when she is anxious. A child feels most secure with a loving, caring parental presence nearby. Next time you’re on the playground with your child, watch the other children. They take breaks from their play to run over and touch their parents’ legs, or they yell from the top of the slide, “Hey Mommy! Look at me!” These children don’t simply want a witness to their shenanigans; they want assurance that their parent is present. This relieves anxiety and frees them to be playful.
2) Set boundaries. Children may not always outwardly appreciate the boundaries we set, but this is another way that children feel safe. She may fuss when we refuse to let her play in the street, but setting a boundary and following through is another way that we communicate to children that they are safe. It also helps them understand the proper settings and context for exploration. Unfettered exploration without any boundaries or guidance, while perhaps sounding appealing to some, is overwhelming. Children do well to know there are limits they can expect. Be clear with appropriate boundaries: where they can play and where they can’t; when it is time to do something else; what types of play are appropriate for a given situation. Now, having said that…
3) Let them play anywhere. Boundaries should be set to protect children from harming themselves or disrespecting others. Within that, however, children should be free to play whenever and wherever they want. No, this doesn’t mean letting them play with the gas oven or run screaming through the aisles during church. But if your child wants to play during a time or activity not necessarily designated as playtime – at meals, say, or in the bath – then encourage them. A child’s exploration shouldn’t be confined to a particular space or certain toys: everything she encounters is worth exploring. At dinner one night, our lovely child decided to dip her fish sticks in her applesauce. We made faces about how gross we thought this would taste, but she didn’t make a mess and she still ate both her fish sticks and her applesauce. Children will seek to make games out of everything they encounter, and this helps them develop a sense of self-sufficiency and creativity.
4) Let them make the rules. As adults, learning to play by the rules is important for social development as well as allowing us to enjoy the game. Football wouldn’t be fun for anyone if every player played to different rules. But we stifle our children’s creativity when we insist they follow rules they haven’t agreed upon. If your child wants to color the sky green and the cows yellow, don’t tell her otherwise. If she wants to play soccer in the backyard with her hands, let her. There will come a time when children will learn to agree to follow certain rules (when she joins a soccer team, for instance), and this is essential for a child’s development of sportsmanship and appropriate social interaction. But when your child is playing at home, let her play however she wants. This encourages creativity and gives her a sense of agency and control.
5) Introduce them to new things. Take them to a new playground. Let them make new friends. Take their old toys and put them in a new room. Do anything to change their surroundings or invite them to think outside of their usual routines. Children already do this more often than we think; they are hungry to learn and try new things. By facilitating this for them, we normalize and reward their natural curiosity. This helps children become flexible, capable, and less anxious about change. Simply buying your child new toys not only costs a lot and clutters your house, it might also suppress their inventiveness.
6) Play with them. This might seem obvious, but I think all parents (myself included) need this reminder. Children can entertain themselves and often do, but they want engagement and interaction with us. Tiring as this can be, playing with them doesn’t have to require immense amounts of energy. If your child wants to involve you in a game, play along and add another level. For instance, when our little girl wants to hand me each of her animal magnets and name each one, I play along by asking her to tell me what sound they make. This teaches her both that her play is important to me, that I want to join her in it, and it stretches her to play differently.
7) Get physical. Children love to run and climb. The reason kids love to be so physically active is that their bodies are still growing and developing and the physical movement helps their bones and muscles get stronger. Inside the house, this might require some occasional redirection (see #2). Send them outside whenever possible. Active exercise helps children develop strong, healthy bodies and fights obesity, but they also get essential vitamins from being in fresh air and sunshine. But don’t just send them outside to run around by themselves; get in there with them. Don’t be shy about rough-housing a little, particularly with girls. This teaches them to be resilient and active, and the physical touch reminds them of your presence and investment with them.
8) Play by yourself. We never outgrow our need for play. Play takes on a different purpose in our adult years, but it is still essential for us as human beings to indulge our need to be purposefully idle and let the new neural pathways build themselves as we continue to learn. Your children will quickly intuit whether or not you are a playful person yourself. Your own inability to play might not stifle their playfulness completely, but it will teach them to hide it from you. So even when your children aren’t looking, find some time to play on your own. Go fishing; play a sport; take up a musical instrument; paint a picture. The more you can inhabit your own spirit of creativity and discovery, the more you will rejoice as it becomes evident in your child.