The Ultimate Guide to Playing with Your Child

The ultimate guide to playing with your kids

What should I play with my child?

For the most part, follow your child’s lead and interests.  

These could range from building blocks, Legos, playing ball, dress up and role-play, but these are as varied as they are individual to each child.

However, when you are stuck and don’t know what to play, there are a few staples that almost all children like.


Roughhousing is an important way of allowing your child to let off steam in a positive and safe environment.  Pillow fighting would be classed as roughousing as would tickling and chasing games.  

Children love running away or hiding from the ‘monster’, shrieking to their heart’s content at the possibility of being caught.  Always be attuned to the child’s feelings and emotions, and know when to stop.  One child’s version of paradise, can be another’s version of hell.

Team Games

If there are a few children to play with, team games can be a fun way to involve most if not all of them.  

There are many known ball sports that can be played with more than 2 or 3 players as well as traditional games such as Hide and Go Seek or Tag. Some examples of team games can be football, baseball, basketball, capture the flag and stick in the mud.

If you want to allow the game to be more open ended, get the children to decide on the rules of a brand new game.  

Family Card or Board Games

Introduce your child to your favorite card games or board games and make this a weekly event so it becomes a family tradition.  

Card and board games can be a great source of entertainment and fun, as well as teaching valuable lessons such as determination, perseverance and hope!  

Some games require specific skills such as math skills or reading and interpretation skills.  Others require strategies and problem solving capability but all can be developed in a fun and relaxed environment.

Play should be fun for you and your child and it should be genuine.  As adults we seem to have lost our connection to play and children can bring our fond memories of playing back to life for us.  

Forget the long list of things on your to-do list and enjoy the moment of connection with your kids through play.

Rules for play

Depending on the age of your child, play can and should look different.  

At every age or stage, it is important to value and encourage individual play, a time when your child can play alone and follow their imagination!  

However, when a child asks you to play with them, there are a number of things you can do that will develop their imagination, expand their vocabulary and establish connection.

1. Let Them Lead

It is easy to play with your child and get carried away by wanting to take the lead, wanting to use the chance to teach your child different things such as colours, animal names etc.  

But you should hold back and let them lead.

Children have their own ideas of what they want to do but want a buddy to do it with, and that buddy is you!

Imagine you come home from work and you want to sit down, watch TV and relax by putting your feet up but you’d also like company. So your partner comes in and tells you that he’d prefer to lie down and meditate instead.  It’s well intended but not what you wanted to begin with.  

It’s the same with play and with kids. Maybe your child wants to play Legos and wants you to be the bad guy – play the part and let them lead the story.

2. Don’t be bullied!

Don’t get yourself into the position where your child is telling you what to do and how to play.  

Now this might seem a direct contradiction of what you read in point 1, and it sort of is!  The reason play is so important in social learning is because when children play with other children, they will have to come to a consensus on rules, content and speed of play to name but a few of the variables.  

As parents, we often think we need to acquiesce to our child’s every demand in play as we kind of have forgotten how to play!  Point 1 talks about not dictating play and point 2 is about not being dictated how to play – middle ground is what you are looking for!  Play requires negotiation and agreement.

3. Use words accurately and appropriately

It is so easy to see play as an opportunity for teaching and it is!  

But you don’t have to explicitly teach things to your child whilst playing with them – this is far from play. 

Instead, while playing, use normal vocabulary (for all ages including with very young children) as you would when talking.  

Children are far smarter than we often give them credit for, and by listening to a range of vocabulary it will set them up to be voracious readers, writers and comfortable speakers too.

4. Finish playing when you no longer feel you are playing

Don’t fall into the trap of feeling frustrated that you are still playing after what feels like forever, and feeling bad saying that you want to stop. 

Remember that kids are honest and if you were a kid you would have already thrown in the towel.  

When you start feeling like it’s getting boring, tell your kids you will play for 5 more minutes and then you are leaving them to it.  

5. Surprise!

Surprise your children by asking them to play with you and pick something that you genuinely want to do with them.  They will be so excited that you have asked them as opposed to the other way around.

Playing can be incredibly healing, relieve tension and bring children closer to their parents even after a disagreement or a power struggle.

Should I choose educational games?

Play, by definition, is something you want to do and it has to be something that both parties by into.  Games, such as board games and card games can be a fun way to play with your child, and many can also be educational or build up on other skills.

There is a huge board game market out there.  

A lot of games have specific educational objectives that help to target a skill such as, a times table snap card game.  However many are also enjoyable in their own right.

Games such as Silly Sentences, where the aim of the game is to form silly sentences using puzzle pieces, requires reading skills.  Others such as Sudoku, work on math ability, but both can be seen as fun!  

Board games that provoke children to be creative problem solvers or strategic thinkers are becoming more and more sought after.  

These work on skills that we want to flourish in children, such as planning ahead, taking turns, and actions and consequences.  Even though these games may not be necessarily academic, most do have an academic byproduct such as calculating a score, or figuring out probabilities.  

The play component need not be compromised when the games are working on mental agility either.  Many children often enjoy the challenge of playing a difficult game, such as chess and others prefer to relax using simple games that require little brain power such as a quick game of snap.

If you feel like you want to help your child with their school work and want it to be more playful, then there are a plethora of activities that you can find online to make learning fun.  

Writing sight words on the floor with chalk and jumping to each one while saying it out loud is more engaging than memorizing them sat at a desk.  Although this isn’t play in the truest sense of the word, it can make learning more playful and enjoyable for your kids.

Board games tend to be a lot of fun, especially when family is involved.  It is easy to create a game night every week which will eventually become a family tradition, cementing that family connection that is so important.

The Power of Free Play

Children are born to learn, and they do so through play.  

Free play means that children have time during their day to freely explore, engage in make-belief and play with their toys without a hidden agenda, before everything becomes ‘serious’ and goal oriented.

True free play is spontaneous, guided by the child and child initiated. But what are the benefits of free play?

It boosts creativity and imagination

Play allows the ebbs and flows of creativity to develop at the child’s own pace.

Everything is possible within the world of imagination, especially when children want to act out stories from their lives with impossible endings or outrageous actions that simply wouldn’t be feasible in our world.

Creativity is vital for so many aspects of our lives and will be essential for the future generation as we look more towards jobs that suit entrepreneurs, innovators and problem solvers.

It fosters independence and social skills

Whether a child is playing by themselves or with other children, free play allows them to develop the necessary social skills of negotiation, agreement, compromise, conflict resolution, self-assurance and independence.  

These are all skills that are extremely important for everyday life.  Research is showing a worrying trend of children growing up without these basic skills due to a lack of opportunity to freely play.

It encourages risk taking

Free play, especially outdoor free play, allows children to dabble in risky play which is paramount for their physical and emotional development.  

Knowing how far they can jump or how high they can climb develops their sense of adventure and coordination skills.  

Children learn to take risks in moderation and in stages, gaining self confidence in what they know they can already do. They deal with fear in doses they can manage and can be tolerated and even enjoyed.

It develops emotional well-being

Free play allows for emotional regulation.  

Often children cannot explain or understand why something has happened to them and they feel more comfortable acting it out through play.  

They can review and replay emotions and feelings they have felt before in a comfortable and non judgmental environment. It allows them to dabble with fear, sadness, excitement, happiness and even anger on their own terms.

If I play with my child, will it challenge my authority?

Many parents believe that they shouldn’t play often with their children for fear of losing their authority and blurring that parent-child boundary.

It is important to establish that creating and nourishing bonds with your children will not in any way, shape or form diminish your parental authority or turn you into someone they dislike, won’t listen to or disconnect with.

If anything, it is the opposite!

When you spend quality time with your children, you feed a connection between you that creates trust, warmth, love and engagement. These feelings tend to reinforce respect between both parties and will allow you to expand your relationship.

Every time you opt to spend time with them, you are continuously sending the message to your children that they are valued and that you listen to them and respect their perspective.

The respect you give your children, will foster mutual respect on their part as well.

Respect during play time will bring them to respect you also when you put your foot down and disagree with them or insist on something after you’ve heard them out.

Playing Can Have a Healing Effect

Play is fun, can be messy and exciting and will be a positive experience for both you and your child.

It can be incredibly healing, relieve tension and bring children closer to their parents even after a disagreement or a power struggle.

A huge benefit to playing with your children, that will aid your bond and relationship, is that you learn so much about them. You learn about their interests, their strengths and their weaknesses.

They also learn more about you, what makes you tick, how you react etc. It’s a win-win situation.

Many parents complain that when their children are teenagers they no longer talk to them, but were they actively listening to them when they were younger, when they were playing with them?

Children naturally are more cooperative and willing to help a person who listens to them, plays with them and spends time with them.

How Long Should I Play For?

This is a valid question but one that has no true answer.  

Children are individuals and vary in interests and needs. Some children are high energy balls of fun and require a lot of input on your behalf to play with them.  Others are happier to lie in bed and read books with your and still consider this a form of play.

Research has shown that aiming to spend 10 minutes of quality, uninterrupted time with each child on their own is beneficial to everyone involved.

Put your to-do list aside, leave your cell in another room and put it on silent, be ‘in the moment’ and spend a minimum of 10 minutes each day with your child doing something fun and upbeat.

If your child wishes you to read them a story while snuggled up in bed, this is totally fine. Quality time does not have to be all-singing, all-dancing time, although it can be!

The Importance of Outdoor Play

Did you know that most children in Western cultures spend more time inside than high risk prison inmates?

The average child spends a mere hour of their day outside on a regular day!

Over the past 20 years, children have become more prone to staying indoors than heading outside to play. This is due to many reasons, such as increase in gaming technology, increase in TV channels and family dynamics.

Some parents are quite fearful of the weather too, only finding it acceptable for children to play outside if it is not raining or snowing or too cold.

However, children, if given the chance, relish the opportunity of being outside during these occasions.  They just need good outdoor clothing to keep them dry and warm!

Health Benefits

There is no denying that being outside and enjoying physical activity in the great outdoors has significant health benefits for both adults and children alike.

It’s good for the body as children are more physically active outside and this improves their gross motor coordination.

Children who spend more time outside, even in colder weather, display better immunity too. It’s positive for the mind as children can unwind as they play outside in nature, and it boosts cognitive function.

Being outside also helps to develop a variety of skills in children, such as physical skills like hand-eye coordination and muscle toning as well as cognitive skills like problem solving, attention to detail and observational aptitude. Not to mention the academic learning that occurs all of the time when a child is outdoors! From the weather, to seasons, to animals and their habitats!

What Can You Do?

  • See the outdoors as an extension of your house and take your family for lunch or dinner in the woods or at the park, instead of sitting at the dinner table at home. Take some toys, a ball or even just books to read under a tree or on a park bench.
  • Commit to going outside with your kids whatever the weather. There is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing! Wrap up warm and run around with your kids to stay warm. They’ll enjoy the fun and you’ll increase your heart rate. Win-win!
  • Start a new outdoor hobby, perhaps hiking or biking. Or try a more modern sport such as as orienteering or geocaching. Whatever you choose, make sure you get outside regularly to do it as a family and have fun!
  • Learn about your local fauna and flora and go searching for them. Take it a step further and compare it to a place that has a different climate to the place where you live.  
  • Go outside and let the kids play in a unstructured manner. No directives – just child centered and child led play without your involvement.

Investing time and effort in getting our kids to play outside is essential for the development of your children. It is as essential for them as water and food and society, as it is at the moment, is depriving them of this fundamental right.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognized play as a right of the child due to its importance in optimal child development.

Although many people consider this to have been put in place as a way to combat child labor and for children living in less favorable conditions, this right of play is still questionable in affluent households due to the academic pressures of nowadays.

It is therefore essential to allow children to have opportunities for uninterrupted, unscheduled and self-initiated play regularly throughout their day and week to ensure the most favorable conditions for learning and growth.


Children need and want to play. It’s an important part of their upbringing, and it presents an opportunity for parents to connect with their children, while providing a basis for education, better health and great fun.

Let us know in the comments – what’s your favorite game to play with your kids? Anything special you can recommend?