Playful parenting in the early years

written by: Dr Ciara Laverty

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One of the many reasons that I love working on parenting is that we can all relate to being parented. Whether it was from a biological relative or not, we all received the fundamental caregiving that allowed us to develop into functioning adults. Many people reading this will be parents themselves and will likely recognize the influence of their own childhood experiences on how they parent. Our personal experiences of being parented and parenting ourselves mean that we all have an inherent acknowledgment of the importance of parents in children’s lives. Parents are children’s first teacher and playmate, and therefore have the wonderful opportunity to introduce their children to playful experiences that will boost learning. These early playful experiences will have benefits that last well beyond the early years.

Young children gain skills through play

During pretend play with a parent, a young child can learn to take the perspective of others; an important skill for the development of social relationships throughout life. An example of this could be a pretend play game between a parent and child where they are both taking on characters who are exploring a new and exciting land together. They must negotiate roles; who is the leader? How do they negotiate the route? How do they work together to overcome challenges, like coming across a fire-breathing dragon on their path? Not only is this kind of play super fun and exciting, but the potential for learning is huge.

Parent-child bonding through play

Learning skills for later life is important, but it’s even more important that young children feel safe and bonded to their parents in early life. Parent-child play in the early years is the perfect breeding ground for fostering close, secure relationships. We only have to watch a parent and baby in face-to-face play in early life to see that there is a whole lot of communication going on, despite the baby not yet having language. This kind of face-to-face play is offering both parties the chance to get to know each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues. For example, parents often make a “play face” when they are about to engage in play with their infant, signaling that the tone of the interaction is humorous and frivolous. The “play face” typically involves a wide-eyed, open-mouthed smile accompanied by a slight gasp. Interestingly, the play face is also used in the animal world, particularly by non-human primates, to signal non-threatening behaviour. Through playful interactions, young children become familiar with their parents’ cues, including the play face, playful tone of voice and exaggerated movements which tend to be prevalent during play.

A fundamental component of parent-child play is warmth. A warm interaction is typically one in which the participants feel cared for accepted. Warm, playful interactions between parent and infant are crucial for the development of a secure attachment. An infant who feels securely attached to their parent will seek closeness and comfort from their parent in times of distress. This early attachment behaviour is positively associated with the way in which children learn to regulate their high intensity emotions during times of stress and anxiety; an ability that is highly valuable throughout life.

What can parents gain from playing with their child?

Parent-child play in the early years does not only benefit children, as parents themselves have much to gain from playful interactions. Parents themselves report that playing with their children makes them feel good. The LEGO Play Well report 2018 showed that 9 in 10 parents say that play is fundamental to their own happiness, and makes them feel relaxed, energized and more creative. The same number also say that play strengthens family relationships, builds trust and helps them get to know their children better. So beneficial is play for parents, that interventions have been designed to alleviate depressive symptoms in parents, with play at the core. For example, mothers in Pakistan who received “learning through play” activity calendars with a range of suggested parent-child pay activities for 10 weeks, showed a decline in depressive symptoms compared to mothers who did not receive the activity calendars. The decline in symptoms was sustained after 6 months, suggesting that play can have a therapeutic effect for parents who are struggling with well-being and mental health.

Parent-child play shouldn’t be hard work

Parent-child play in the early years is ultimately be about fun and mutual enjoyment. Importantly, high quality play between a parent and child does not require lots of time and toys. Moments of wonderful play can happen during everyday routines such as cooking, feeding, bath time and bed time. Anyone who has ever watched the joy a toddler shows when tearing wrapping paper from a gift will know that readily available materials such as tissue paper and cardboard make excellent toys for young children.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there are many reasons why I love working on parenting- in particular, parenting and play. Another big reason for this is because I believe that the most compelling evidence for the power of parent-child play in the early years is all around us every day; in the aisles of the supermarket, in the playground and on the bus. Personally, the joy and warmth displayed by both children and parents in these magical moments is enough for me to know that parent-child play is absolutely vital to early life.

Dr Ciara Laverty is Research Specialist at the LEGO Foundation

Download the Playful parenting in the early years leaflet