Parents and play: re-learning to play with your kids

Some parents find it hard to play with their kids, but spending quality time together doesn't have to mean spending hours pretending to be a cat or playing an endless board game, it can be as simple as giving kids your full attention.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File
A MONOPOLY Property Trading Game, in Portland, Ore., in this April 13, 2011 photo. When it comes to 'play,' not all parents do a happy dance. But the bigger question is whether parents have forgotten how to play altogether.

Silvana Clark spent 10 years as a parks and recreation supervisor for the city of Bellingham, Wash., yet when it came time to raise children, there were certain things she just didn't love to play.

"When we played Monopoly we were the worst. We actually applauded each other if you could steal money out of the bank without the other person knowing it," she recalled. "We would say to our daughter, 'You stole $100. That was so good. Just don't do that with your friends.' "

When the younger of her two now-grown daughters was about 8, mom realized she hadn't experienced the scent of fresh-baked cookies filling their house.

"I just don't like to bake cookies, so I took a pot of water and I put cinnamon and vanilla in it and I boiled it," Ms. Clark said. "She came home from school and she goes, 'Wow, what's that smell? That smells so good.' And I said, 'Well if I were baking cookies, that's what it would smell like.'"

But there were countless other things Clark and her husband enjoyed, like making homemade Play-Doh, in mom's case, or pushing the girls on a rope swing that straddled a pond, in dad's. The couple lived guilt-free about the rest, believing their kids had plenty of quality time with their parents.

When it comes to "play," parents should not feel honor-bound to participate in exactly what their kids want to do, said Clark, who now lives in Seattle and has written a dozen primarily family-focused books.

Like it or not, the bigger question, she said, is whether parents have forgotten how to play altogether in these stressed-out, overbooked times, when dropping kids off at classes or other structured activities prevails, along with loads of time-eating homework.

"I'm totally shocked when I'll do a parenting seminar and I'll do something as simple as say, 'Why don't you play hide and seek in your house?' and people look at me and they'll go, 'What? I never thought of playing hide and seek in our house,' " Clark said. "I'm not asking them to construct a model of the Eiffel Tower or anything."

Quality time, she suggested, doesn't have to mean a hated board game or endlessly pretending you're a cat. It can mean a trip to the hardware store, if done with spirit – and even TV, something parents may depend on a little too much during school breaks.

One weekend ahead of the Tony Awards, her theater-loving family spent an afternoon drawing the New York skyline on a huge length of butcher paper and taped it to the wall. They taped down red construction paper for a red carpet leading to the TV room, bought sparkling cider and dressed in their fanciest clothes for the broadcast.

"As long as kids have your full attention, it can be as simple as taking the dog for a walk together or getting a bird feeder and reading about how to attract birds," Clark said.

Parents shouldn't feel guilty for not liking certain games or a particular type of play, agreed Rita Eichenstein, a developmental psychologist in Los Angeles.

"Your child will know how you are feeling, no matter how much you fake it, so it's best to create games and activities that you both find fun," she said.

In addition to developmental benefits for kids, play can reawaken and relax parts of parents' brains that help them live more in the moment , where children naturally dwell, Dr. Eichenstein said.

When a parent has to suck it up and play something they're not into, Clark suggests setting a timer for 15 or 20 minutes, or establish a special time of the week that's "kid choice."

Motivational coach Darah Zeledon in Plantation Acres, Fla., is the mom of five, ranging from 5 to 12, and acknowledges she has trouble unplugging if the laundry, dishes, and spilled cat litter aren't dealt with.

"It saddens me to be this way because I recognize that this window is short and time is fleeting, and for not much longer will my kids be begging me to play with them," she said.

She's honest with her kids about it, though, and works to remain approachable.

"My kids always tell me what they're feeling, even and especially when they're pissed at me for not taking the time to play with them," Ms. Zeledon said.

Patrick Lee, in the central Missouri city of Ashland, raised four daughters and fostered two sons. "I played some, but I didn't need to be their playmate all the time and I certainly didn't feel guilty about it," he said, noting that he worked from home during much of their upbringing and his wife homeschooled.

At 62, now a grandfather, he found himself looking back on those times during a family gathering at Thanksgiving. He was in a park far from home and was the only adult in the group to accompany a pack of young relatives on the slides. Eight other grown-ups stood on the perimeter and watched, he said.

"Now that my kids are grown, I don't regret my choices to let them amuse themselves," Mr. Lee said. "Those were formative, imaginative times for them. But sometimes I wish I had played with them more."

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