When thinking about play, a person may picture children having fun, using their imaginations, and passing time lightheartedly. While play is all of these things, it is also very important for a child’s development. In fact, play is so vital that it is recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child worldwide.
The act of play fosters a child’s development by providing opportunities to refine motor skills, solve problems, and take initiative while interacting with their environment and with other people. Unstructured play helps children develop executive functioning skills, which can affect their ability to make decisions, be organized, regulate emotions, and pay attention, even into adulthood. Play can also help children (and adults who play with them) to more effectively deal with stress by regulating the body’s stress response.
Additionally, playtime represents a fantastic opportunity for fathers to interact in meaningful and positive ways with their children. Through play, fathers are offered a glimpse into the way their child views the world. This can also help parents understand how to better interact and communicate with their children, especially children who are not typically very vocal or expressive.
Fathers who play with their children can foster learning and relationship building at any point in their child’s life. Providing a small amount of guidance to your child while playing–without taking control or being overly restrictive–can help a child to master skills quicker than they’d be able to if they were playing alone. Such skills include leadership, decision making, resilience, communication, creativity, and focusing on a task. Fathers can also support playtime via scaffolding, which is a form of teaching that allows children to build upon what they already know. For instance, imagine your child has learned to stack blocks on top of one another. When you play with your child, you can encourage them to try stacking the blocks in different and creative ways. You can work with them to build a taller structure or ask them to imagine what the blocks represent to them. This challenges them while providing a safe and supportive learning environment.
Additional ways fathers can promote development through play include:
- Pay attention to your child’s interests and passions during playtime and respond with positive encouragement.
- Go along with the flow of the game by letting your child take initiative and be the leader.
- Encourage curiosity and imagination by not imposing strict rules or guidelines.
- Promote skill development by encouraging your child to do activities that refine motor skills (such as crawling) or mental skills (such as counting).
- Ask open-ended questions! This helps build critical thinking skills, a highly sought skill in the work world! Examples can be “what happens when we do this ____?” or “what does this remind you of?”
- Help your child stay focused. Encourage your child to stay focused on a task to improve concentration and resiliency (though, the timeline of their ability to focus will vary depending on your child’s age, the time of the day, and other factors such as hunger).
- Provide time for unstructured play. While some extracurricular, planned activities are beneficial, children also need downtime, which gives them the opportunity to be creative and build brain cells! Two hours of unstructured play per day is shown to predict changes in brain weight and efficiency, including an ability to problem solve and to be socially active. Unstructured play includes activities where there are no rules and children can make up as they go along. Allowing children to pretend play, or make up games, or simply play with an object, like blocks, are great examples of unstructured play.
Have fun exploring with your child through play and learn about the world through their eyes!
- Fatherhood Research and Practice Network
- How Fathers Shape Their Children’s Development: Revisiting the Literature
- Tips for Dads: Playing with Children
- The Unique Contributions of Fathers to Their Children’s Development webinar recording
- How Play Connects to Learning
- 10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play