The Parental Role in Play

Publication Date
February 19, 2019

The way that children begin to understand themselves and the world around them is mediated through play. The value of play is in the way that children learn to navigate their world. The benefits are far reaching. For example, self-regulation learned through play helps with social relationships, academics, and at work.

Despite the benefits, busy routines mean that time for play is at risk. Academic pressures in school contribute to reduced recess time. This shift is compounded by the prevalence of technology and the rise of indoor activities.  According to a Brookings article by Michael Yogman and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, A Prescription for Play, childhood activities have increasingly moved indoors and have involved screen time. The average time that children spent on mobile devices tripled between 2013 and 2017, from 15 to 48 minutes per day. When this indoor time doesn’t involve play that is engaging or instead focuses more on academics, it can negatively impact a child’s development.

Child playing with legosCommit to Play!

Playtime that is child centered doesn’t mean play without parents. Adults can and should have an active role in play. It offers an opportunity to strengthen parent-child bonds. A study by Natasha J. Cabrera, Elizabeth Karberg, and Jenessa L. Malin called The Magic of Play: Low Income Mother’s And Fathers’ Playfulness and Children’s Emotion Regulation and Vocabulary Skills, affirms parental response and role in play as vital to that play’s success. Note that parental involvement in play does not mean leading that play. Rather, it is a way of responding with playfulness and guiding play in a way that increases its benefits. They discuss play as an easy and relatively inexpensive way to have fun with kids. According to the study, fathers’ playfulness makes a difference in the cognitive development of children. When fathers exhibit playfulness with children, there are positive links to vocabulary development and emotional regulation. A father’s participation in play also positively contributes to a mother’s efforts in play.

Play Smart!

Given the importance of play, it is worth considering what types of play are the most valuable.  Child-led play combined with parental involvement as participants in play contribute positively to child brain development. Back and forth interactions between adults and children keep kids engaged. These back and forth interactions are called “serve and return.”  According to the Harvard University Center of the Developing Child, there are simple steps for parents to follow to provide these responsive relationships that babies and children need from adults. In 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return, we learn to:

1) Notice the serve and share the child's focus of attention.
Looking and pointing are examples of serves. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child explains that noticing a serve is a way to learn a child’s interests. Notice what the child is noticing and follow their line of sight. By understanding where the child is looking and pointing, you learn about what they are drawn to. This increases overall understanding of the child’s development.

2) Return the serve by supporting and encouraging.
It’s important not only to notice the serve, but to acknowledge it. This is an easy way to engage in playtime. By saying “I see” or nodding you encourage a child’s curiosity. This form of participation over time is a necessity for a child’s development.

3) Give it a name!
By naming what a child notices, you help to build language skills even before a child can talk. It prepares them to use the word themselves by getting them comfortable with the sound.

4) Take turns and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth.
Children need a moment to respond, so once you return the serve, wait for their reaction. 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return explains that waiting offers the chance for children to build self-confidence because it’s a moment of independence for them.  Waiting is an opportunity for the child to build self-control and for the parents to learn the child’s needs.

5) Practice endings and beginnings.
Support a child when they are ready to move on from their activity. The key is to take their cue. When they look away or say they are done, it’s time to move on. Selecting a new activity will open up the potential for more serve and return moments.

These are quick and easy steps to take in order to make play even more fun and brain boosting.

Learn More About: Additional tips for playtime

National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse

bot icon
  • Current: Step 1/3
  • Step 2/3
  • Step 3/3
Was this page helpful