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Learning to Play with Your Kids

mother watching her child play

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.

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.

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.