I have heard from many of you over the Christmas period asking for ideas on how to manage family play time without it descending into chaos and war. This post-Christmas period is a great time to sit and reflect on how we have managed and even facilitated family time together over the break.

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I am betting that there have been highs and lows over the past few weeks. That is absolutely normal because we all have good days and bad days in our lives and our family lives are not exempt from this. It can be on those less-than-ideal days that our inclination – our play stamina, if you will – feels a little lacklustre. But these are the days when family play time is needed most of all. Why? Well, our children love to play with us because they love to connect with us. Parenting is about connection, and play fuels connection.

Spending time playing as a family is beneficial for all members of the family, even the adults but especially so for the children. Regular family playtime will help to grow and develop emotionally healthy, secure relationships and emotional resilience that will stand to your child across all areas of their lives both now and as they continue to grow and develop. This isn’t just nice to do, it is developmentally essential.

Family play is about creating opportunities for shared joy in moments of meeting – that is, connection. This is the route to developing secure bonds and attachments while learning important social skills such as compromise, critical thinking, negotiation, reciprocity, turn-taking and empathy. The time you spend connected as a family also ensures that yours is the message that your children default to in times of confusion and/or crisis because this time enables you to pass on shared values and opinions, to have discussions about what’s going on in life and the world around you. This will ensure that your children feel more valued and develop an appreciation that others will think differently to them and that this is okay. Time spent together as a family is always time well spent.

Processing experiences

If your child proactively invites you to play with them, they are letting you know that there is something they need and that they believe the answer is connection with us. Perhaps they are holding on to an uncomfortable experience from school or with friends that day and it is unsettling them; they instinctively know that connecting with us will help them to process the experience. If we cannot accept the invitation immediately, it is still important to acknowledge it. “Thank you for inviting me to play with you. I would love to. I have some adult jobs I have to take care of first but as soon as I am done we can play together for a while before dinner/bedtime.” But if we are distracted and we miss the invitation altogether, we have missed the opportunity for a moment of meeting between our child and us.

Our children love to play with us because they love to connect with us. But perhaps it has been quite a while since we adults lived in a world of imagination and play, so our play skills might be a little rusty. The last thing I want to do is make you feel that playing with your child is yet another task you have to fit into your already packed and demanding day. This is about finding easy and fun ways to connect with each other as a family using the language of play while being practical and finding ways to embed the play into your existing routine.

TAKE 15 MINUTES A DAY

Most of these activities can be played with children of all abilities, but go with what you know your child is developmentally capable of. You can adapt many of them to suit your child’s developmental needs.

0-7 years: When in doubt, break out the bubbles
– Bubble pop: blow bubbles and ask everyone to pop them by clapping/grabbing/using one finger/elbow/stamp on them

– Bubble tennis: increase the challenge by playing in pairs against each other and picking one bubble to blow back and forth between you to see how many before it pops

8-12 years: Balloons, lots of balloons
– Hot potato/cold potato – same balloon on the same blanket but when you say “hot potato” everyone must move the blanket vigorously while keeping the balloon on the blanket, sending it high. Cold Potato calls for gentle sway to gently move the balloon on the blanket. This one helps to get everyone in synch with each other.

– Over/under – stand in a line behind each other. The first person passes the balloon behind them over their head; the second person passes it behind them under their legs and so on alternating between over and under. When at the back of the line, turn around and send it back. This is working collaboratively as a team.

The teenage years: Make it fun to get it done
– Everyone gets ingredients to make play dough, but add a choice of food dye and scented oils/cocoa/fresh herbs so that everyone gets to personalise their dough.

– Take turns selecting a piece of paper each from a bowl. Don’t show anyone what is on it but turn a sand timer and everyone gets five minutes to make the item using their dough to see if others can guess what it is. Everyone gets to work separately yet engage together at the same time for this.

Throughout Health Month, Joanna Fortune will be suggesting playful ways to connect with your children this year. Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting Series of books, solamh.com