What Really Matters When Playing with Your Child? - Baby Chick

What Really Matters When Playing with Your Child?

As a mom, you may wonder if you are spending enough time playing with your child. Fortunately, you're doing better than you think.

Updated December 4, 2023

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist

At some point in motherhood, every new mom asks, “How long should I play with my child?” This question is tricky because it depends on who you ask and how you define play. If you ask your child, the answer would be 24 hours a day. Playing with mommy or daddy is usually the most fun thing in the world.

What is play?

Play is an important part of early child development, but what exactly is “play?”1 In the purest sense of the word, play is getting down on the floor, on your child’s level, interacting with your child and their toys, and playing games. Play comes in many forms, and I bet you are playing with your children much more than you might think!

For instance, do your children come into your bed in the morning, jump on you, hide under the covers, and make silly noises? That is play.

Do you take your child for a walk and point out colors and shapes, and jump off curbs? Do you take your children to the park, push them on the swing and catch them at the bottom of the slide? That is play.

Do you give your child some toys or containers to play with on the kitchen floor while you make dinner? Do you talk to her and interact with her during the process? That is play.

Do you tickle her tummy and encourage her to blow bubbles in the bath at night? That is play.

Are you getting my point? Play likely happens all day, you might not even realize it. In fact, most of your child’s day (when they are not napping, of course) is play and exploration. You are likely involved in a big part of that!

What is the difference between structured and unstructured play?

Experts would point out that there is a big difference between structured play and unstructured play, and children need an equal mix of both.

Unstructured play consists of most of the examples mentioned above. It is organic play that occurs without planning. This can happen with or without you. Children engage in unstructured play all day by making up their own little games and turning everything into a toy. There are benefits to unstructured play in that the child usually has control, and they learn by figuring things out independently. They also usually learn some problem-solving skills and coping skills in the process.

Structured play is just like it sounds: much more organized and usually guided by an adult. Structured play allows parents or caregivers to teach some things in the process, even if just through modeling. During structured play, you might lead the game or activity, allowing the play to move to the next level. You may stack a few blocks and then ask your child to create the same structure. Then you may talk about colors and shapes and ask your child to name them as well. You may say, “You stacked three blocks. Can you stack four? How about another one? How many is that now?” You challenge your child to think on the next level through structured play and teach her new skills.

Bottom line: a balanced combination is best!

Interacting with your child daily involves more unstructured play than you probably realized. Further, setting your child down to work on a puzzle or build with LEGOs allows your child to engage in structured play. Even if your child is not at home for most of the day, organized childcare and preschool classes incorporate structured and unstructured play all day. This is great news, as children need a combination of both!

Try to keep a good balance of both types of play and try to be playful even when you are not officially playing. This will help to engage your child and help them to learn new information. It also makes everything more fun! Playing with your child is not only easier than you probably thought, but it can also be fun for you too!

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Aimee Ketchum Pediatric Occupational Therapist
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Dr. Aimee Ketchum is an Academic Fieldwork Coordinator and Assistant Professor of early child development at Cedar Crest College Occupational Therapy Doctoral Program. She continues practicing her skills as a… Read more

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