Learning to Play with Your Kids

I've been a master at managing my kids' lives but pretty lame at joining their make-believe world. I realized that I needed to get back in the game—literally.
mother watching her child play

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This is embarrassing, but I'll come right out and say it: I had completely forgotten how to play. I came to terms with this a few weeks ago when my 5-year-old daughter, Blair, asked me to play princess with her. She handed me two dolls—a Cinderella and a Snow White—and then stared at me.

"Make them talk," she commanded.
"Ohhhh," I said. So I held the dolls up in the air facing each other, and began:
Cinderella: "Hey."
Snow White: "Hey."
Cinderella: "What's up?"
Snow White: "Not much."

I looked at Blair. Her face was contorted in such a way that I couldn't tell whether she was disappointed or about to throw up. I felt the same way she looked, and it had happened a lot lately. Whenever Blair would ask me to build a fort or say, "Let's play restaurant," my gut reaction was always the same: "Do I have to?"

I found it somewhat heartening to discover that I wasn't the only one with this attitude. According to a recent British report, one in five parents said they'd forgotten how to play, and one third admitted that games with their kids were downright boring. It's not that I didn't like hanging out with Blair and her 3-year-old sister, Drew. I was perfectly happy reading books to them and taking them to fun places.

Suddenly, though, they needed me to be a playmate rather than merely an audience member. Unfortunately, the unstructured, let-your-ponytail-down kind of play that's so important for young kids felt about as natural to me as getting my eyebrows waxed. "Playing is work," my friend Jen, an at-home mom, told me. After six daily rounds of hide-and-seek with her two preschoolers, she has to control the urge to yank her brain out of her ear.

As a working mom, my evening hours have long been focused on my type-A checklist: making dinner, convincing the girls to eat it, updating the family calendar, clipping their toenails, running their baths. I've secretly wondered, though, whether I pile on the pre-bedtime tasks intentionally so that I have an excuse not to play Littlest Pet Shop.

But I was also starting to feel the clock ticking. Blair had lost her first tooth recently, and she was growing up—fast. Before long she wouldn't even want me to play with her. What if my only memories of her childhood were combing out the knots in her hair and packing her lunches? I knew the ability to be silly and spontaneous was in me somewhere. I was 5 once. I used to know what dolls would say to each other. I would turn bath towels into capes and charge through the house yelling, "Shazam!" So I decided to make a concerted effort to get my play back on—and learned some lessons that might help you too.

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