Learning to Play with Your Kids

Get Your Play On

Prioritize Play
My first call was to Stuart Brown, M.D. He runs The National Institute for Play, in Carmel Valley, California, which, aside from gathering scientific research on the subject, holds occasional workshops to teach grown-ups how to play kid-style. "It's tough for some parents to get down on the floor with their children and really let go," Dr. Brown said.

The very idea of moms and dads playing with their kids is a relatively recent concept. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, families often had three or four children, so there were more built-in playmates, and kids were expected to entertain themselves. Plus, no one thought twice about letting kids roam unsupervised in the neighborhood. Now, families spend more time together (a good thing!), but many parents end up being everything to their little ones—parents, coaches, teachers, and playmates.

To get me back on track, Dr. Brown suggested I set aside about 20 minutes a day to play with my girls after work and before the start of the evening routine. I was to avoid checking my e-mail or picking up the phone during that time. I didn't need to tell the girls what I was doing. I just had to be there for them.

The test: Soon after starting my first play session, my cell rang and, like Pavlov's dog, I instinctively answered it. Not a good start. So I turned it off, reset the timer, and sat back down near my kids. After eight minutes (during which time I glanced at my watch numerous times), Drew shimmied over to me. She grabbed a rubber ball from the toy box and threw it into my lap. I threw it back. For the next five minutes, we took turns tossing the ball to each other. Drew giggled each time. Blair noticed and ran over to play with us. Within a few minutes, the girls started rolling the ball to each other, ignoring me completely.

Then I realized: When my daughters said, "Play with me," they didn't mean for hours and hours so I'd never get dinner on the table. They meant, "I'm bored right now. Can you help me out?" I followed Dr. Brown's regimen every night, and the kids invariably tired of playing with me after about 15 minutes. But committing to a set window of time ensured that I wouldn't start doing my chores until that happened.

Just Say Yes
You can't always plan out playtime, of course. Sometimes you just have to jump in and go with the flow. That's why I sought inspiration from Mary Carpenter, who directs classes at ComedySportz Philadelphia, an improvisation company. Lesson one is the foundation of all improv: No matter what another actor says to you, respond with "Yes, and ...." This forces you to use your imagination, she explained. "If someone says, 'What a lovely duck on your head,' don't say, 'I don't have a duck on my head!' Respond, "Yes, and she really helps keep the insects away." I described my pathetic attempt at playing princess. "When she asked you to play you could have said, 'Yes, and my princess is named Ginger. She is looking for her lost dog. Can your princess help her?' " said Carpenter, a mom of two. That way, I'd be saying something specific that encouraged Blair to participate as well.

The test: An hour before dinner one weeknight, Blair asked, "Mommy, will you color with me?" I thought to myself, 'Do I have to? I need to fire up the grill, and I haven't opened the mail yet.' Then I remembered Carpenter's rule. "Yes," I responded, "and I'll use the sea-foam-green crayon." Blair picked right up on it: "That color is good for the trees. You do that. I'll make a chipmunk." We drew together until Blair was done with me, and I actually let myself enjoy it.

The next night, Drew said, "Chase me!" This time I blurted out, "Yes, and I'll be the Amazing Spider-Mom trying to catch you in my love web!" (Love web? Really?). I ran after her. The girls were so wide-eyed and smiley when I accepted their play invitations that I truly felt like the Amazing Spider-Mom. Having a framework for a script ready made it easier to come up with an idea instead of falling victim to brain freeze.

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