Believe it or not, some many parents find it difficult to think of what to do when trying to play with their child. When our children are infants we do things like cuddle, make faces, read books, or let them crawl on and around us. Whereas many of these activities can still continue into the toddler and preschool years, our children often grow toward wanting us to engage in something new and different: Imaginative Play. With some of these newer types of play, parents can sometimes feel lost on how to participate. Parents often express guilt about this and feel like they “don’t know what to do with their kids” or “are bad parents for dreading playing with their child.” Part of this could be due to the fact that as we mature into adulthood, we typically have forgotten how to play imaginatively and can feel our own inadequacies arise when trying to engage with our kids in this way. Sadly, we often lose the natural ability to launch into childlike play the more distant we get from our own youth. However, unlike adults, children play as a way of learning, growing, and developing. It is also the primary way that children process and make sense of their worlds. If you watch closely, you will likely notice you child reenact an event from earlier in the day through their play with dolls/action figures, puppets, or role play. Because play is so important to healthy development, getting non-directed playtime is essential for children. Moreover, when our children invite us into their play it is usually because they want us to witness their growth as we interact through a medium or “language” that makes sense to them.
I frequently teach parents to use an approach called the “Describing Technique,” which comes out of Filial Play Therapy. The purpose of this activity is to give your child full and undivided attention. You child will be in complete control of this activity with you as the witness to everything he or she is accomplishing. It is very important that screens/electronics are not a part of this time and that the parent is not doing any other task such as cooking a meal or answering the door. When I use this technique with my own children at home they excitedly request it by saying, “Describe me, describe me!” The parent can call this “special play time” when discussing it with their child. Research is clear that even two 15-minute time periods of special play time per week can dramatically improve the relationship between parent and child.
The describing technique is rather simple; The parent simply annotates what he or she sees the child doing. The parent is not to try to teach or to ask the child questions. The parent is acting almost like an audible mirror just describing the child’s actions. For example, the parent might sound like this, “Wow. Look at you move that car! I see you moving the car back and forth. I see you moving the car back and forth even faster! And faster! [Child puts the car under a blanket] I see you put the car under that blanket. [ Child: “It’s a cloud.”] Oh, you put the car under the cloud. Wow. Look at that car under that cloud.” If the child says anything then the parent simply repeats what the child says. The parent should be careful not to use a tone that asks a question. For example, if the child says, “He punches this guy” the parent needs to state, “He punches that guy” versus question, “He punches that guy?” At first a child might notice the parent responding in a new way and say something to the effect of, “Why are you talking funny?” If this happens then simply say, “You think I am talking funny.” If the child asks you to do anything or prompts you to move a toy or character it is okay to do so while you continue annotating what you see. For example, the child might say, “You are the baby horse and I am the mommy horse.” You could then say, “You want to be the baby horse and you want me to be the mommy horse.” Then move your toy in the way the child moves his or her toy or in the way the child instructs you to move the toy. The child might say, “We are running to the river!” and then might move her horse quickly. You should also move your horse quickly and say, “We are running to the river!” It takes a bit of time for the parent to get the hang of it, but the technique is fairly straight-forward.
Most parents report feeling a great burden lifted upon learning the “Describing Technique” in Imaginative Play. It becomes a very user-friendly way of interacting positively with your child, furthering the bond between the two of you. When we are freed from our own ideas and agendas about playtime, we can more fully engage the feelings of joy associated with watching your child learn, explore, and grow. We need to be able to get out of our own way and more than anything, out of our heads and really connect with our kids. You will be amazed at the mutual satisfaction you and your child feel about the times spent together, and this builds the foundation of a healthy life-long relationship.