Health Beat: The many benefits of time spent playing with your child

Andrea Vannetta

It’s the New Year, 2020. It’s a time we often reflect on ways we can make our lives better or healthier in some way. Many will strive for stress-reduction, drinking more water or getting to bed earlier. Any change that creates joy or contentment is worthwhile.

But this year, what if the goal is to spend more time playing with your child?

As a pediatrician, I’ve seen countless benefits from parents spending time playing with their child, but as a parent, I know how our daily activities – kids to school, work, bills, dinner, bath, bed – can be overwhelming at times.

Check in with your tasks of the day – can you let go of one or two and spend an extra 10 minutes with your child? This year, consider creating an intention to be present with your child every day – and to laugh.

What better way to do that than with play. Research shows clear developmental benefits for children when they engage in play. Play is shown to increase social and emotional intelligence, as well as to help develop executive functioning – meaning it increases a child’s ability to work through problems or tasks using logic rather than impulsivity. Play in the toddler years is also linked to increased academic success in school, due to an increased ability to focus and problem-solve.

When was the last time you wrestled around with your youngster, making them laugh and maybe even break a sweat? Rough and tumble play is a great way to help kids “get the wiggles out” while promoting physical activity. It also provides a safe environment for risk-taking and helps kids learn that sometimes you win, but sometimes you lose, a necessary skill in life.

Active play teaches kids empathy, too– if a friend, sibling or parent stops due to a minor injury, this allows your child to consider the emotion of hurt and subsequent comfort. Physical play also teaches communication and self-regulation: a child must speak up if she/he is feeling scared, and also must respond to a friend or family member if that person is setting a boundary. It provides an unspoken set of rules that everyone should be having fun and no one is supposed to get hurt.

Pretend play is another realm that provides a child the opportunity to develop creativity and cooperation. It often involves mimicking the adults in a child’s life and allows a child to “try out” new roles, make rules, and develop the ability to work as a team.

When a child plays make-believe with his or her parents, the child naturally learns foundational skills by observing the parent. For example, in your imaginary quest to find fairies or monsters, you, as the adult, might offer some new ideas for staying safe or narrowing down the path to take. Adventures like this give your child “scaffolding” that he or she builds upon in future endeavors – either make-believe or real. And be sure to have fun – speak in a different accent, crawl on the ground, play hide and seek in “fairyland” – the possibilities are endless.

What does play do for adults? It provides exercise for both body and mind. You often use a different part of your brain and let go of stress to play with your child. Your brain chemistry benefits by releasing endorphins and dopamine, which results in stress-relief and happiness.

Have you noticed the sparkle in your child’s eye when you get down on her level and truly engage in her project or play? Kids love an adult who can forget their age and be playful. Seize every chance you have to be silly with them. Try dancing to an upbeat song, swinging your youngster around or coming up with ridiculous dance moves – it’s good exercise and everyone around benefits.

What a joy to let go of stress and “to-do” lists, and even more, to let go of the responsibilities of being the rule-setting adult. Nourish family bonds by being present and laughing with your child, one of the most valuable and priceless gifts you can give.

This year, remember the value of your family and quality time. Our kids change and grow so fast, and before we know it, their peers are more important than family (which is developmentally normal). Making space for play when they are young has a rippling effect as they grow, both in terms of social/emotional growth and connection with you.

When thinking about play, do what resonates with you and your child. Allow them the freedom of guiding you in play, while feeling good about their brain development. Along the way, love and fun will weave their way into the moment and create lasting memories.

Dr. Andrea Vannatta, MD, is a Pediatrician at Partnership Health Center in Missoula, MT.