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The Parents Guide to Play: 9 Tips to Ignite Your Child’s Learning

Most parents dread this familiar scenario: you buy your kid a new toy, they’re thrilled for ten minutes, but then the toy sits on a shelf collecting dust for six months. While you can’t stop your child from shifting interests, you can engage them through play to support their learning, develop their social skills, and boost their creativity. But with hectic lives and daily distractions, it can be hard for parents to know how to channel their inner-child and connect with their kids through play.

So what can parents do to help their kids get the most out of playtime?

1. Accept the challenge

Play has always been a natural part of childhood across cultures, but today’s society doesn’t lend itself to children getting much unstructured play. Kids aren’t going outside as often, they’re involved in more structured activities, and many schools have reduced recess periods. Research has shown a correlation between society’s decrease in play and increases in depression and anxiety. For these reasons, it’s important that parents accept the challenge of consciously making play a priority.

2. Learn the benefits

Understanding the perks of playtime will help you make educated decisions about what types of toys and activities will benefit your child most. Play can help your child:

  • Learn about their world

  • Manage their feelings

  • Build relationships and social skills

  • Learn from playmates

  • Enhance their physical health

  • Discover how to self-entertain

  • Ignite their creativity

It’s also important to realize the damage that inactivity can cause – not getting adequate playtime can prevent your child’s brain from developing normally, increase attention issues, and negatively impact their academic performance.

3. Put quality before quantity

When it comes to playing with your kids, it’s important that you genuinely connect with them, even if only for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. If you’re sleep-deprived or stressed out like parents often are, take a break and catch up on bonding time later. Your child will benefit most from playing with you when you are rested, calm, and ready to have some fun.

4. Rotate playmates

It’s important for your child to play and interact with you as their parent, but also make sure they get ample playtime with peers their own age as well as some alone time to play by themselves. Playing with peers will help them develop social skills, and playing alone will help them learn to entertain themselves creatively.

5. Tailor toys by age

As your child’s brain develops, they will require different types of toys to stimulate their interests and learn new skills. Toys generally list which age groups they are geared toward, but you can also check out this year-by-year toy guide for details on which toys are best for your child in each stage of development.

6. Balance nurture with boundaries

Play provides a space for kids to lead and parents to learn what their kids are thinking and feeling. While play should be child-led, it also provides opportunities for parents to set limits and teach their children to respect boundaries. Empower your child by letting them choose and lead activities, but don’t allow them to behave in disrespectful or inappropriate ways. Playtime is a great opportunity to teach your child to consider the feelings of others – a lesson that will benefit them when playing with other kids at school.

7. Don’t Dominate

It’s great for you to become engaged in play, but make sure you don’t dominate activities yourself. Parents are especially prone to doing this with crafts or projects that are supposed to turn out a certain way, and can end up pushing their child aside as they create the finished product. So next time you’re creating a Lego masterpiece or building a robotic unicorn, make sure your kid is equally engaged in the assembly.

8. Practice PRIDE skills

Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) identifies 5 skills that parents can use to shape their children’s emotional and behavioral well-being. Incorporate these skills to get the most out of playtime with your child:

  • PRAISE – Compliment your child for their positive behaviors. This will reinforce desirable actions, making them more likely to repeat them. Example: “I love how you’re stacking your blocks carefully and keeping them on the table.”

  • REFLECTION – Repeat back or reflect what your child talks about during play. This shows that you are listening and value their thoughts. Example: Child says, “The dragon is flying to a far-off land.” Parent reflects, “The dragon is flying to a far-off land.”

  • IMITATION – Boost your child’s confidence by copying their creations or ideas. Imitation shows your child you enjoy playing with them and think their ideas are cool. Example: “I’m going to draw a swamp monster just like you.”

  • DESCRIPTION – Support your child’s language development and communication skills by describing what you see them doing during play. Example: “I see you’re taking your doll’s sneakers off and putting her roller-skates on.”

  • ENJOYMENT– Don’t forget to show enthusiasm and enjoyment as you play. The more fun you are having, the more engaged your child will be. Example: “I am having so much fun playing soccer with you!”

Dr. Marta M. Shinn, a specialist at Variations Psychology, is a PCIT and PC-CARE Trainer for the University of California, Davis and has taught many moms, dads, and caregivers how to incorporate PRIDE skills in their parenting.

Click here to find a PCIT Provider

Are you a dad? Click here to check out our PRIDE skills for dads

9. Get support

It can be difficult for parents to know how to connect to their inner-kid and engage their children through play. But remember – behind every great player is a supportive coach! Our specialists at Variations can help you bridge the gap between yours and your child’s interests to make play enriching and rewarding for both of you.

*Please note: since the publishing of this blog, Variations Psychology has narrowed its focus to diagnostic testing and psychological evaluations. Our Doctors can evaluate whether you or your loved one have a diagnosis and guide you through the next steps in achieving your mental health or academic goals. While Variations does not offer counseling, our diagnostic evaluations allow us to refer patients to specialists who are best equipped to meet their needs. In addition, this link can guide you through a directory of therapists, psychiatrists, treatment centers, and support groups in your area.

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More about Variations Psychology

Variations Psychology is a group practice specializing in Child and Family Psychology.

Our specialists provide therapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults to help them overcome the many challenges they may face throughout the lifespan of a family. We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions that may impact the family’s mental health and development (e.g. ADHD, Autism Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders, college entrance exams, graduate and professional licensing exams such as MCAT, LSAT, GRE, CBEST, NCLEX, GMAT, CA Cosmetology Exam, CA Contractors State Licensing Exam, and CA Bar Exam).

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Variations Psychology is located in Newport Beach, CA and provides counseling to residents throughout Orange County and its surrounding areas including Newport Beach, Newport Coast, Irvine, Shady Canyon, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Coto de Caza, Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa, Yorba Linda, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo, Mission Viejo, Pelican Hill, Crystal Cove, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, Lake Forest, Huntington Beach, Sunset Beach, Seal Beach, and more.



O’Connor, Siobhan (2017). The Secret Power of Play. Time Magazine. Retrieved online: http://time.com/4928925/secret-power-play/

Raising Children – The Australian Parenting Website. (2018). Why Play is Important. https://raisingchildren.net.au/newborns/play-learning/play-ideas/why-play-is-important

Bongiorno, L. (2018). 10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play. National Association for the Education of Young Children. https://www.naeyc.org/our-work/families/10-things-every-parent-play

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2018). Good Toys for Young Children by Age and Stage. Retrieved online: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/play/toys

How to Cite This Blog Article:

Shinn, M.M. (2018). The Parents Guide to Play: 9 Tips to Ignite Your Child’s Learning.

Psychologically Speaking.  [Variations Psychology blog post].  Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/the-parents-guide-to-play-9-tips-to-ignite-your-childs-learning