Learning to Play with Your Kids

Switch It Up

Keep 'Em Guessing
How could I prevent my playing act from getting old? To find out, I phoned Jim Jackson, a clown who does hundreds of children's theater performances every year in the Colorado Springs area. Jackson's trick is to take ordinary situations and turn them upside down. For example, if an orange he's juggling drops onto the ground and splits, he'll transform it into a talking puppet—which surprises and delights the kids. He suggested that I adopt a similar approach. It could be as simple as intentionally leaving a smudge of chocolate on my cheek or wearing a bowl as a hat. "Do something silly that they'd never, ever expect," he said.

The test: At bedtime, I read Blair A Visitor for Bear, a regular in our rotation. But I decided to make it seem new by giving the uninvited mouse guest a British accent. Halfway through, I thought to myself, 'You're surprising her. You're playing!' But then Blair interrupted me. "Mommy, stop talking weird," she said.?I did the same thing with a different story the next night. "Mommy, why are you still talking weird?" Blair asked.

A few days later, she and Drew asked me to play tea party. I said, "Yes, and I'll wear my new gloves." I grabbed two red pot holders from the counter and sat at the little table they'd set. I tried in vain to pick up the tiny teacup with my awkward lobster hands. The girls laughed so hard they stopped making a sound. Then I spoke in the British accent and they tried to copy me. We were all in hysterics. Maybe when it comes to a British accent, the third time's the charm. But I believe the real takeaway is that coming up with a wacky scenario got my brain going, which made playing a fun thing for me too. Yes, being imaginative took a bit of work, but the more I did it, the easier it got.

Over time the girls began asking me to play with them a lot less. I should have been relieved. Instead, I felt kind of sad—until I realized it was because I had been playing with them more, and I wasn't so bad at it after all. Besides, it wasn't really my job to be their constant companion. "Kids prefer to play with other children," David Elkind, Ph.D., a child psychologist and the author of The Power of Play, told me. "Adults are a last resort. They just like to have us around."

He was right. Blair and Drew seemed to respond best when I was merely their supporting player, available and willing when they wanted me to make a cameo, then stepping back and letting them do their own thing. Still, this exercise helped refresh my memory about how to play like a little kid. It turned out my inner 5-year-old is a lot cooler than I'd remembered. I'm so glad we had the chance to go to a tea party together again.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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