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Play and the importance of play

Published 13.07.2022 - Produced by Produced by the parenting experts of Väestöliitto - The Family Federation of Finland , the Central Union for Child Welfare and the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters , Family Federation of Finland
Play is an essential part of a child’s development. Through play, children learn to understand themselves, other people and the world around them. In this section, you will get tips on how to support your child’s play.

Play develops a child’s imagination and problem-solving skills. While playing with an adult, a child will learn new words. Play reinforces a child’s social skills such as sharing, taking turns and taking others into account. A child’s self-confidence and sense of capability grow through play.

Play tips for adults:

  • Let your child lead the play. Follow your child’s imagination and ideas. Avoid directing the play too much and giving your child instructions on how to play “right”. Imitate your child and do as they ask. Watch the play from the sidelines and be a good audience for your child.
  • Play at a pace that suits your child. It’s important for a child to repeat things, because that is how they learn. For an adult, repetition can feel frustrating. Yet, it’s best not to create too much pressure or be impatient and rush the play. It’s good to remember that a child’s pace is slower than an adult’s, and matching your own actions to the child’s rhythm helps the child to concentrate.
  • Listen to your child’s messages and try to find a level of play that’s appropriate for them. The child may resist the game because he or she finds it too difficult and doesn’t feel ready to learn it yet. If your child is resisting play, take a step back and listen to what they want to play. It doesn’t matter if a game that’s too difficult turns into something else, like spinning game pieces.
  • Avoid competition and power struggles. It’s important that the play nurtures the child’s experience of independence and self-esteem. A child is under the control of adults in many areas of life. Play should be an area where the child has influence and control, as long as it remains safe – without endangering or hurting themselves or others. If an adult is constantly telling them how, for example, to build with building blocks and taking charge of the building, the child may end up frustrated and watching you build it from the sidelines.
  • Praise your child for being inventive. When playing, it’s important that the child is free to use their imagination and make sense of things, rather than being told how to play by an adult. Avoid arguing and correcting the child when they seem to have the wrong idea about something. Give your child the chance to discover and experiment for themselves.
  • Get involved in role play, because it will teach your child compassion. Developing their imagination will help your child to get along in the world and understand the difference between imagination and reality.
  • Describe the play, don’t ask too many questions. You can comment on the play out loud, for example: “You’re putting the frog on the train and now the train is leaving.” You can also describe the child’s feelings and behaviour: “You look upset now that the castle broke, but you’re persevering and carrying on building it.” The child will enjoy the attention they’re getting and learn words for things and occurrences at the same time. Asking too many questions such as “what will the frog do next?” or “what’s this place?” can inhibit a child’s creative play and bring a sense of having to accomplish things in the game. Questions can make the child feel obliged to explain and to know what is happening in the play, rather than allowing them to explore and discover things for themselves.
  • Let your child experiment and do things themselves. It’s important to give the child the space to make an effort and come up with solutions themselves when playing. It’s not unusual for children to send conflicting messages to their parents. Sometimes a child may feel frustrated when they don’t know how to do something yet. At the same time, they may get angry if the parent does a difficult thing on their behalf. Doing things on behalf of the child increases their dependency on adults and reduces their experiences of success. It’s important to help the child and do things together when needed, but also to give them the opportunity to exert themselves, make discoveries and succeed.
  • Support children playing together. Playing helps children learn important social skills. Social skills can be reinforced, for example, by positively verbalising a child’s constructive behaviour with friends: “You’re very kind when you share toys with others and wait your turn.” At the same time, you can guide and help your child to choose constructive behaviours, such as thanking people, apologising and giving positive feedback to others. Notice when your child is playing well and calmly with others. Often parents use this time to concentrate on their own affairs. If you want to support your child’s desirable and positive behaviour, it’s important to notice it and praise them for it. This means your child won’t have to behave badly to be noticed.
  • Make playtime a regular routine. A parent’s regular presence during play reduces a child’s frustration and restlessness. It’s easier for your child to wait when they know their turn is coming.
  • Put an end to inappropriate behaviour in a kind but firm manner. For example, if your child starts pushing others during a game, you can stop the game and say “when you push others, we have to stop the game.”
  • Prepare the child for the end of the game. At the end of playing, you can thank your child for the game and tell them how much fun it was. You can anticipate the end of the game by announcing that in five minutes the game must stop. Anticipation helps the child to move from one activity to another. It’s better to stick to your decision to stop the game than to give in to the child’s attempts to persuade you to let them continue. Determination and kind firmness will reduce the child’s restlessness.

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