One of the sounds I find most heartwarming is the laughter and voices of children playing. Those
happy sounds echo outside my window sometimes and it often brings a smile to my face as it
takes me back to remembering my own childhood and the joys that play brought to me. These
days the sound of children playing and laughing can sadly not be heard as often due to the
pandemic disrupting children’s social lives. Perhaps one of the most difficult things many
children are facing these days is not having peers around to play with. Because of this lack of
social connection, a child may start to appear more depressed, anxious, or possibly may be
seeking their parents attention more frequently.
As a parent you may have started to notice how this pandemic is affecting not only
yourself, but also your child. As if parenting was not already challenging enough, you are now
faced with having to take on additional roles and juggle more at home than you were before the
pandemic. You are not only working from home, but also trying to help your child with school
work and make sure they are staying on task through-out their school day. Additionally, you may
be experiencing burn-out as you see no end in sight to the current circumstances caused by the
You do your best juggling all your responsibilities and seeing to your child’s needs, and
by the time the work day and school day have come to an end, you are probably exhausted.
Because you are exhausted and your child is stuck at home and not able to have much, if any
social connection, it is probably easiest to let your child be on electronics so they are entertained
and stay out of trouble. And this makes sense–you have both had a long day and you just need a
breather. However, although giving a child an electronic device may be the easiest way to
entertain them, too much screen time can prevent them from developing important skills they
learn through play. When a child engages in structured or unstructured play they are learning
and developing new skills such as learning how to process their emotions, problem solving,
creativity, and other important skills that help them grow in their development.
Because you and your child have little social interaction and are mostly stuck at home,
you have a great opportunity before you that you may never have again. You can enjoy spending
creative and fun time with your child through playing with them and can help foster their
learning experience. However, as a parent you may think, “playing with my child sounds time
consuming and I have a lot of other responsibilities.” Then I will also tell you that children don’t
need parents to spend long amounts of time with them in play to get the connection and benefits
of playing with their parents. Spending just 20 minutes with your child in either structured or
unstructured play can be a meanful time of connection and learning experience for your child.
Another hurdle for some parents may be they are uncomfortable with playing with their child,
because they simply have forgotten how to play and have fun. As a therapist who works with
children, I can assure you engaging in play with a child is not complicated, because they like to
give you direction and tell you how to play.
Structured Play vs Unstructured Play
There are two types of play that children engage in: structured play and unstructured play.
Structured play has rules and directions that are normally given by an adult. Examples of
structured play would be a board game or puzzle. Unstructured play is led by the child and the
child chooses what interests them. Examples of unstructured play would be dress up, playing on
a playing ground, playing doctor, playing with cars or a dollhouse. Structured play can come a
lot easier to parents than unstructured play.
Many parents tend to overthink unstructured play with their child. However, it is really very
simple as you just follow your child’s instruction and direction of the play. One simple way you
can do this is through asking your child what they would like to play and let them choose the toy.
Once your child chooses the play activity, again allow them to lead the play and ask them what
they want you to do. An example would be if your child chooses to play with a dollhouse then
you might ask them, “who would you like me to be?” “What should I do now?” “What should I
say next?” Basically act as if your child is the director of a movie and you are asking them what
the script is for every single part of the story. You may think “my child is going to get annoyed
with me asking all these questions”. However, what you will discover is that they will actually
take great happiness in getting to tell you what to do!
Teaching Your Child through Structured Play
Structured play comes a lot more naturally to parents, as they are generally the ones
teaching and directing the play. However, as a parent you need to be careful in also not over
teaching and correcting your child when engaging in structured play. If you are correcting too
much your child may become frustrated and so will you. Then no one will be having fun! One of
the best forms of structured play that both children and parents enjoy is board games. Board
games are great for children of all ages as it can teach them to follow instructions and rules, as
well as learn to problem solve. When engaging in a structured play activity with your child such
as a board game, be aware to not over-correct your child every time they make a mistake. Instead
give your child the opportunity to notice their mistakes, even if they keep making the mistake.
For example if you are playing Candy Land and your child starts to go in the wrong direction
you can very casually say something such as, “Wait a minute, I’m confused. Which way is start
and where is the end?” If your child still does not get it after this hint, you can either correct
them or you can teach them through modeling. You can model making the same mistake of
going in the wrong direction yourself, but then realize you are going the wrong way and correct
yourself out loud. You admit out loud that you are going the wrong way and then point in the
correct direction you need to go. Again the key to something like board games is not to over
correct, because your child could become frustrated and then the game isn’t fun anymore. You
also may get caught up in constantly directing and correcting your child and it will become
frustrating and no longer fun for you as well.
Whether it is structured play or unstructured play, don’t overthink things. Just enjoy
being with your child. Remember, this time with your child is about connecting with them, but
also having fun. You may not have another opportunity such as this one again, where both you
and your child are spending long amounts of time at home. Take this current negative
circumstances and turn it into an opportunity to help your child grow developmentally, build a
stronger connection with them, and learn again the joys of play.
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