Mindful Play: How To Be Present When You Play With Your Child

Kids are the masters of play.

When kids play, they are truly living in the moment. They are open to possibilities. They focus all their senses on what they see, hear, smell, and touch. And when we hold back from directing them, there are many benefits – for us, as well as them.

These brief moments where our kids are in control allow for a warm and safe space for children to direct their day, which can be useful in building confidence and resilience. Play can also be a wonderful way for children to work through their lingering issues and make sense of things that have affected them, especially when laughter happens. Laughter is a powerful way to dissolve tension and restore a sense of wellbeing.

Following our children in play by letting them lead what happens is actually a kind of mindfulness practice useful for us as parents too.

Mindful Play is Good For Parents Too

Mindful play creates a space where we, as parents, can:

  • See what is holding our children's fascinations, and perhaps muse why
  • Delight in our children as they are, noticing what we enjoy and love about them in particular
  • A time to shake off our adult responsibilities for a while and indulge in fun and laughter
  • Respite from urgency, of needing to direct your child through the daily schedule
  • A regular way to reconnect with your child and cherish that time

Just as with any kind of mindfulness practice, mindful play with your child is about relinquishing our leader role for some time and being in the moment as time unfolds. It is about focus – on our children in this case – and a time to let other concerns go.

It seems an awesome thing to be able to delight in our children's wonder, their curiosity, and imagination – and maybe even regain some of that for ourselves – and that is entirely possible, and yet, slowing down, and actually letting our children lead our play, can feel incredibly hard.

This post explains why this kind of one-on-one mindful play is so beneficial for children in providing them a place to feel seen, loved and respected, those key indicators for a successful outcome in adulthood, but it doesn't touch as much on why this might feel difficult for parents.

Learning to See Play As a Regular Practice in Mindfulness

It can be REALLY hard for us parents to let go and follow! Next time you play notice how often the urge comes for you to suggest things, whether that’s offering to “help” build a tower, or to have a character “do” something new and unrequested. To win at a game, or shoot all the goals. We might feel closed to what our kids ask us to do. Their play may seem to be on the edge of a reasonable request, after all. Or we may simply feel too rushed or too tired to spend time in this kind of play.

Understanding How Kids Use Play When They Have The Freedom to Lead

It can help to know better why kids benefit from leading their play. We often hear the term that a child’s work is play. It’s true. Children use play to make sense of the world – even if we don’t know what experiences they are working through exactly.

Giving kids the freedom to direct their play in our warm and open presence gives them the opportunity to play where they need to most.

Say you invite your child to play blocks, and he regularly knocks down the tower you painstakingly build. We might, naturally, feel the need to tell him not to knock the tower.

But, what if last week at preschool, he accidentally knocked down a classmate’s tower, and the classmate became upset? It could be that your child is using this time with you to examine what it means to knock a tower down.

What if your child asks you to kick a ball around, but gets grouchy every time you make the goal.

From the outside, the behavior may seem defiant, or bratty.

But what if your child has serious doubts about himself on the soccer field, and needs to win (against you) to feel that thrill just once or twice in a bid to recover from the feelings he has about letting his team down. What if he needs to build trust with you, by winning a few times, before he can let his guard down enough to receive skills instruction.

It can be hard to decipher why children might direct their play the way they do, and we don’t actually need to try. What we can do is trust that they do know what they need to do and follow them in it. This is why them being able to take the lead is a vital component of this type of play.

Getting Present in Play: Seeing Play As Daily Mindfulness PracticeDad playing with boy

We can also think of our play with our child as a regular practice in mindfulness. The ultimate way to skill up on letting go and focusing on the moment!

As this article outlines, there are several ways that play can be mindful, including the idea of encouraging openness. Being open to where the imagination takes your child and you is bonding and helps children to make discoveries with the materials they are using, test boundaries, and get inventive in their play.

How Can I Build Mindful Play into Our Day?

There are a few ways to incorporate play as a regular practice into your life. Some parents are encouraged by holding a “yes” day now and then, where they say yes to their children all day once in a while.

The Hand in Hand Parenting Tool of Special Time brings mindful play into a regular schedule for shorter bursts of time, say 10 minutes a day or every few days. You can read more about how to run Special Time as a regular practice here.

Free Checklist: Get a cheatsheet on how to run Special time and build regular trust and connection with your child

Good Guidelines for Mindful Play

However you decide to try mindful play, there are a few guidelines to help you and your child get more from your times together.
  • Build up slowly, a few minutes at a time if you find it hard to focus your attention on play.
  • Listen carefully as your child sets up the play. (Sometimes an intricate set up is the actual play, although it may not seem like it.)
  • Keep listening. Children often stop play, re-direct, and then pick up in a new direction as ideas come to them. Try and keep fluid!
  • If you are not sure of their direction, it can be helpful to gently ask, “Like this?”
  • You can and should still set limits if play gets aggressive or dangerous. For instance, if in a pillow fight your child bites in her excitement, pause for a minute, gently set the limit of no biting, and then move to resume play.
  • If you feel your mind wandering, or feel tired, focus on the joy, intensity or the energy your child brings to the play.

When Play Doesn't Come Easy: What to Do When Play Feels Hard

It's not unusual at all for us parents to find mindful play difficult. There are a number of factors why:
  • We face constant pressure to get things done in our adult life, which can feel more important than play.
  • We may undervalue the role of playing and letting a child lead play because no-one played in the same way as us as children
  • Following a child in play may dredge up less than fond play memories from your own childhood
  • It can feel unnerving not to know what's coming next
  • We may feel too tired or agitated to play

As with other to mindfulness exercises, acknowledge these thoughts and feelings as they happen, and then return your focus to the play. Work your way up in time increments as your comfort level grows. If you have someone who can listen to you without judgment, bring up some of the thoughts you have during play and work through why you might have them. This act of clearing space for the feelings you have has a rebound effect and will often help you to loosen up around play that feels hard. There's more about these kinds of listening partnership exchanges here, and a demonstration of two moms in a listening exchange in this episode of the Hand in Hand Podcast.

Children who spend time in the company of their parents and family, playing and leading play have more opportunities to build confidence and resilience as they work on the issues they need to, and regular play together with the child “in charge” fosters trust and strong and lasting connections.

Following our children's lead in play also helps us to attune more easily, and learn more about how our children make choices that can be very useful in other areas too.

Let us know if you have tried using play as a practice in mindfulness. What games does your child like to lead? How does it feel for you to let go?

More on the Power of Play and Connecting with Children

Read 4 Types of Limits That Children Need

If playing seems hard read this post to determine why: What If I'm Just Not A Playful Parent?

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