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“Will You Play With Me?” How Much Do We Need to Play With Our Kids?


Kids love our attention, but, how much ‘attention‘ do they really need in order to fill their cups? And, is it our attention that they’re seeking, or is it our connection? More importantly, what kind of play is the best?

As parents, we have a limited amount of time and energy that we can devote to being 100% with our kids, before we either get busy, tired, burnt out or annoyed. It’s normal. And, everyone has different levels of tolerance for the amount of time they can play with their kids. I know some people who romp around with the kids for hours, and to them, this post may even seem silly. But, for others, it can be difficult to know exactly how much time you really need to ‘play‘ before you need to stop and meet your own needs. I can ‘be‘ with my kids all day, but the amount of time I actually ‘play‘ with them, usually maxes out after about 20 minutes.

Children Don’t Need To Be Entertained 24/7, But You Should Include Them
Children, even babies, love to be involved with the day-to-day family activities. It’s not always convenient for the parents, but if you can afford a little time and patience, it will give them some of that feeling loved-and-included-quota. Let them do the stuff around the house with you. Dishes, laundry, wiping, vacuuming, etc. Sometimes you don’t have the patience for it, or it’s not always at an appropriate time, but see where you can fit it in.

Use High Energy Laughter Play
Sitting around and playing tea party is fun, but it’s not that high concentrate of play that children really thrive off of. Also, this type of play has a tendency to bore adults. So, chose an activity or silly game that is high energy and makes you BOTH laugh. Make sure the child is comfortable and understands the game. Hide and seek. Chasing. Peek-a-boo. Pretend you can’t do something (I sometimes pretend that I’m a floppy rag doll and that I can’t sit up properly, the kids crack up trying to help me sit up). Contingency games, role reversal games and power reversal games are great. I wrote more about that sort of play here. As the child gets older, the type of play will change. There is an entire book on play, that I highly recommend, called, “Attachment Play” by Aletha Solter.

Look For Signs that They’re in Need of Playtime.
Are they yelling out “Watch this! Look at me!” every five seconds. Or, maybe they ask you to sit down and read 10,000 books. Or, maybe play cars for hours. Or maybe they’re acting extremely obnoxious. If so… that’s a good indication that they need some high energy connection/play time.

Set Aside All Other Distractions if Possible
The phone goes away. Don’t be in the middle of cooking dinner. Be really 100% present.

What If You Don’t Like Playing Your Children?
Let’s be honest, many of us don’t, and that’s ok. Look at your own childhood. Were there times when you wished your parents could have played with you and they didn’t? Maybe you’re hanging on to those old feelings? It’s ok. You don’t have to feel guilty about not wanting to play with your child. You also might really not have the time or energy to play with our children, especially if you’re not feeling well. In that case…

Give Yourself a Time Limit, to Avoid Burnout
If you feel like you’ll have to play for hours, you will likely feel resentful. But, if you give yourself a time limit. Say, 5 minutes per day of high energy play. Or, even half an hour, once a week, then, you won’t feel like playing with the kids is such a big deal. It gives them their dose of connection and you won’t feel trapped. Let them know when you’re going to finish playing. Give them some sort of ‘one more time‘ and then stop. If they cry and complain because they want to keep playing, that’s ok. Often, high energy play brings up emotions, like tears. Let them know you understand that they’re upset, but that the play needs to finish. Giving yourself a time limit seems over-prescriptive, but if you’re the type of person who will avoid playing with your kids because you don’t enjoy it, then keeping track of time is probably a good idea.


Don’t Turn Play Time Into Something Educational
Unless the child specifically asks for it. This is your time to goof off and be completely silly. You may even purposely be anti-educational to have more fun. Sing the wrong words to a song. Pretend you can’t read properly or break the rules on purpose.

The Difference Between Attention and Being Present
We give our children attention all day long, when they need things, but being ‘present‘ is different. It means you really connect with them. See the difference and do your best to be ‘present‘ with them while doing play time.

Their Physical Contact Quota Needs to Be Refilled Regularly.
Ever wonder why your kid comes crashing onto you annoyingly? Or you find them obnoxiously under your feet? You think it’s their lack of coordination and awareness… but think again. A lot of times, they are looking for physical connection and they’ll get it any way they can. Younger children and especially babies need much more contact, less so as they get more mobile. But, don’t be tricked if older children don’t come begging for physical touch. They also need a certain amount of contact time from a loving carer. Even if a child just sits on your lap while you’re reading a book, they’re getting that physical contact that they thrive on. You can play little games, like hand clapping (pat-a-cake), sing songs with hand movements, like ‘Row row row your boat‘, or even contingency games where the kid presses a part of your body, like your nose, and you make a corresponding noise. Piggy back rides are a favorite with my kids. Co-sleeping and babywearing are excellent ways for a child to receive his or her physical contact quota. Avoid tickling, blowing raspberries and other contact that invades your child’s sense of personal space.

Set a Loving Limit When Playtime is Over or Gets Too Crazy
When you’ve really had enough, or time is up, tell them that the play will finish and then end it. Or, if they start hurting you, or destroying things, end the play. They might cry afterwards and it’s ok. Kids harbor negative emotions, like anger and frustration and sometimes the laughter and connection time spent with a person they love can bring up those emotions. Let them know that you understand and hear them. My kids almost always have a big cry after a big play. They either get hurt or they get upset. They laugh, then they cry. Then AFTERWARDS, they are a delight.

There’s no quick and easy for knowing EXACTLY how much time one particular child needs you to play with them. Some kids need more than others. My little one will happily play on her own for hours. Her happy go lucky attitude actually gets us in trouble sometimes, because I forget to play with her, but she needs that connection time too. My older one is in my face all day asking to play, so I never forget.

Our society sends mixed messages to us about how much time we should be spending with our children. Spend too much time connecting with your kids and people accuse you of letting your children run your life. Spend too much time doing your own thing, and you feel guilty because you haven’t made enough time for the kids. So, don’t worry. Do your best to bring balance. The balance changes on a day to day basis, and depends on your needs and the needs of your children. Whatever you do, make sure to have a little fun!

image by Art

24 Responses »

  1. Why no ticketing or raspberries?

  2. I really enjoyed reading this – I adore my daughter but I also loathe playing with her! I just can’t enjoy it.

  3. Kay, because the goal is to empower them through our connection, and get them laugh to release feelings of powerlessness that are so frequent for children (as they are little, unable to do a lot of things, decide on what happens to them etc.). Tickling may make them laugh but also feel powerless about what happens to their bodies. So it could lead to more powerlessness, the opposite of the desired result.
    That being said, pretending to tickle but not actually tickling (e.g. each time missing to reach them clumsily) could also bring loads of laughter, as a safe alternative!

  4. My son (5) asks to be tickled and seems to love it. If he says stop, I stop immediately. Is it still not recommended?

    • I think kids appear to love tickling because it’s an easy way that we connect with them. Maybe you can just adopt a different type of play when he comes for a tickle? Even just pretending you are going to tickle him, or ‘catch’ him. He’ll probably laugh just as much 🙂

  5. My kids are expected (instructed) to give verbal cues to tickling … Stop! Again! They love to be tickled.

    Then they ask to tickle ME and i explain that while they might enjoy it, i do not.

    • I think kids appear to be enjoying tickling because it’s often an easy form of connect to elicit from adults. But, there are many other ways to get that same connection and laughter play without tickling. Even ‘faking’ to tickle them will probably make them laugh just as much!

  6. my baby purposely comes to me for a tickle 🙁 and i stop when she says stop or moves on. I’m so sad its making her feel powerless!

    • It’s ok… I think most people have tickled at some point. Maybe just change the tickle to some other sort of connection time. You can even come at her like you’re going to tickle her and then stop, she’ll probably laugh just as much 🙂

    • You’re not making her feel powerless unless you don’t stop when she asks or you tickle when she has not asked for a tickle. There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing! Most kids love to be tickled and as long as the parents don’t get mean or inappropriate but listen to their children’s cues then they will not feel powerless! You’re doing fine!

  7. When my daughter was little, her two favorite games to play with me were “Baby’s Happy Birthday” and “Party Bag.” The former involved pretending to bake a birthday cake, in order of activity, starting with taking out an imaginary bowl and mixer and ending with blowing out candles. The later involved pretending to fill party bags with loot (saying Party Bag with each insertion) and then dumping it out and taking turns saying what’s in the bag.

    Dance Party, teaching them how to play games like Statues, Mother May I?, Red Light/Green Light all came from playing with me, as did card games as they grew older, and taking the time to teach them a craft like how to make puppets or something slightly messy seemed to count as great “play with me” activities.

  8. This is an awesome article! I love it!

  9. is the advice you share on not tickling coming from research or personal experience? just curious.

  10. Show me the source of your information, Specifically where it talked about tickling.

  11. This just feels very contrived to me. I don’t understand the super control over starting and stopping playtime against the backdrop of not tickling or blowing raspberries because they lose bodily control.

    Kids feel loss of control in lots of ways. If they ask you to tickle them and you refuse, then that takes away a sense of power for them too? If you determine the start and stop of play time, that is also a sense of power.

    The research that I have read on tickling encourages. I am just wondering if you have a link for not doing it? I would be interested in your source and doing some further reading.

  12. Lots of Kids loved being tickled! It’s quite all right.

  13. I was an only child and had a very traumatic childhood My parents never played with me and I can’t remember missing it. I homeschool my own children now. I love spending time with them but I hate playing. I hate pretend games, I hate board games, I don’t like running around the house & I loathe video games. It’s just not my personality. I’m a nurturer. I love hugs and kisses; I love to cook for them; take care of them while they’re sick; I love teaching them about life and academics and can talk with them for hours; but I hate playing and have felt so guilty over it. Especially since my kids are far apart in age (22, 16, 8) and never had a sibling to play with. Between the ages of birth and 5, I had no problem being a bit silly, I certainly would play peek-a-boo; pat-a-cake; hide and seek; etc. But once they became school aged, the grace for playing left. My husband thankfully can get very silly. He plays outside; play fights; when our daughter was little, he painted her nails. You certainly hit a nerve with this post but I’m glad you posted it. Life is made up all kinds of people most of whom are not like the poeple on t.v.

    • I agree, this is just someone’s opinion and not set in stone laws. Some kids liked to be tickled. Some don’t. That’s OK. I do not play with my kids. We do board games, read together, tell jokes, sing songs, but no we don’t act silly. That’s what their friends are for. This is how parenting was for 10,000 years and suddenly these moms think they can redefine parenting by putting a guilt complex on everyone who doesn’t abide by their perfect parenting. It’s laughable.

  14. The research you’re demanding is out there. Or use common sense, say please when asking for something. Google it!

  15. Great reminder. Especially about the phone! I turned a time-out punishment into a “time-in” with me yesterday. We sat and played a board game. During which the offending crime was analysed, responsibility taken and appropriate learning for next time taken time. What made my heart sink was that she was so joyful when she realised that I was suggesting we play together. Note to self….play without “need” because you want to!

  16. Pingback: Power Reversal Games: Helping Kids to Connect and Cooperate -

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