6 ways in which parents hinder kids' playtime

kids on a merry-go-round
CC BY 2.0 Guilherme Jofili

Play is so crucial for children, and yet overzealous parents have a horrible habit of ruining it.

Raising kids is hard and you’ll make a lot of mistakes along the way, but please don’t screw up playtime. Play is everything to children. It’s the way they learn to manipulate objects, resolve conflict, negotiate differences, use their imaginations, and relax. Play is crucial to a child’s wellbeing, and yet it’s frequently inhibited by overzealous parents who make the erroneous assumption that more structure is better, while the opposite is, in fact, true. The key to successful playtime is letting go.

Here are some common ways in which parents ruin play for their kids, and that every parent should watch out for. Some of these suggestions come from child development specialist Merete Kropp via an article in the Washington Post, others from various parenting blogs, and some from my own experience as a mother.

1. Giving too many warnings

“As children constantly hear words of caution, they become afraid to try new things.” This is the last thing a parent should want for their child! A child should be full of curiosity, confident, nearly fearless in their exploration of new things. Stop worrying excessively about cleanliness and hygiene; kids and their clothes are washable. Stop fretting about dangers and threats that are statistically minimal. Stop imposing so many physical boundaries on outdoor play; let them roam the neighborhood if they’re old enough to watch out for cars.

2. Providing limited play ‘scripts’

When a child shows interest in a topic or TV show, parents often run out to buy matching costumes and toys that match the theme. This is fun for a bit, but eventually becomes boring. Kropp writes:

“True dramatic play occurs when children negotiate among themselves about the roles they will take on and when they determine what to say or what will happen next in a scene. Play takes time to set up and plan. It develops organically and can rarely be duplicated. It may involve healthy tension and conflict between children as they exchange ideas and opinions.”

The same applies to toys that entertain more than they challenge and cannot be modified from their original use.

3. Over-scheduling

This is probably the biggest play inhibitor these days. Kids’ schedules are so full with extra-curricular activities that it’s hard to find time to play; or when it does occur, it is scheduled into the day as well. This hinders true creative play, which is frequently born out of boredom.

4. Allowing too much screen time

Few kids will turn off screens voluntarily. Tablets, phones, and computer games are highly addictive and more immediately gratifying than figuring out what to do with a pile of Legos or inventing a backyard game. By placing strict limitations on screen time (i.e. none during the school week or when the weather is nice), parents force their kids to come up with alternatives and eventually have more fun while they’re at it.

5. Hovering and/or participating

Parents should move away when kids are at play. Don’t be that parent who stands around to make sure everything goes smoothly. It won’t, nor should it. Allow kids to engage in conflict, and then allow them the satisfaction of resolving it independently.

On a related note, do not ever think that a parent is responsible for eradicating a child’s boredom. This is not true. Kids need to figure out a solution to their own boredom – and they will, given the time, tools, and privacy to do so.

6. Insisting on using household items for their intended purpose

Relax! You’ve got young kids in the house, which means that things won’t be immaculate all the time. If kids want to turn sofa cushions into a fort (or a “sewer,” as my kids bizarrely call it), let them. If they drag blankets around the kitchen floor and drape them over the chairs, let them. If they want to use the broom for riding, let them. If they need a spoon for digging, let them. So often, my own knee-jerk reaction as a parent is to say “Don’t use it for that!”, immediately followed by “Why not?” Most things are washable – but always insist that kids put things back once they’re finished.

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