The Parish School Blog

Finding your Inner Child: Tips for Supporting Engagement and Learning Through Play

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“Play is often talked about as if it were relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” - Fred Rogers

Play is a child’s natural state. It is through play that a child works through their emotions and learns language, fine and gross motor skills, social language and academic concepts. Research shows that children absorb even more when engaged in play with an adult. However, playing may feel unnatural and like hard work for parents.

With these tips, even the most serious adult will be able to find their inner child!

  1. Have fun! The more you’re having fun (showing enthusiasm and interest), the more likely your child will also have fun and become engaged in the play.

  2. Get on their level. If they’re on the floor, get on the floor. If they’re on the bed, get on the bed, too. This simple action makes you more of a play partner and less of an observer. This also makes it easier for your child to see your face, hear your words, and engage in the same object or activity as you.

  3. Parent and child play legosGo at their pace. Some kids play at a slightly slower pace. Children with developmental delays and learning differences often require more time to process, motor-plan or stay regulated. Lowering the speed for fast-paced kids also helps them to focus more on what they are doing.

  4. Start at their stage. It’s important to engage your child in a level of play that is developmentally appropriate. If you try to engage them in multi-step, imaginative play before they’re ready, play will be difficult for them. Speak with your child’s teacher to see at what stage your child plays. For more information on stages of play, see this blog post.

  5. Focus on one activity at a time. It may help to put other toys away, which will lower the chance of distraction and keep the interest on you and their current activity.

  6. Know when to stop. Children’s attention spans, stamina and level of interest may last only 5-10 minutes, depending on their age and development. If your child becomes overly restless, disengaged or fatigued, it’s time to either take a break or move to a different activity.

  7. Follow their lead. You don’t have to constantly direct the play. Sit back, relax and follow their lead. If they have an interest in trains that day, focus on trains. If they want to run and chase instead or sitting for a tea party, go run and chase!

  8. Keep it simple. Not all play activities need props, costumes and lots of toys. Play can happen with a few blocks, a pile of sticks, one ball, or no toys at all. Follow what interests your child and only use the number of toys/props they can handle. Sometimes too many toys can be more of a distraction than help. And other times they may not be ready for costumes yet.

  9. Model behaviors and words. Be a model for both the actions and the language you want your child to use. If the goal is to feed a baby, demonstrate giving a doll a bottle. If the goal is for them to use specific vocabulary words, be sure to use them frequently yourself. For example, “Wow this play-doh is so squishy! I feel it squishing in my hand! Squish, squish, squish!”

  10. Make small changes. If you want more of a challenge for your child, begin with their preferred play scheme and make small changes. For example, if they have only been feeding the baby, you could have them take the next step of either giving the baby a bath or putting the baby to bed.

Two Things to Avoid:

  1. Asking too many questions. Asking questions is often seen as a way to get a child to talk more. However, it often can feel overwhelming or intimidating to children. Imagine someone quizzing you while you’re trying to have fun! That’s a quick way to get a child to shut down.

    Instead, use self-talk (talking about what you are doing), parallel talk (talking about what the child is doing), and expansions (expanding on what the child has said). If you want the child to talk about their blocks, begin talking about your own. For example, “I’m building a fire truck. I need all the red blocks.” Or comment on their blocks, “Wow, you are building a tall tower. Oh, it’s so tall!” This takes the pressure off being put on the spot and provides a model for them to use.

  2. Stressing out. The most important thing to remember is to have fun! Even if you cannot remember all the other specific tips and techniques, having fun and engaging with your child is the most important and meaningful part. Plus, the more fun you have, the more you both will want to play together again!


Make Play ROCK booklet series by Hanen Center
The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun by Carol Kranowitz, MA, OT
Play and Literacy in Early Childhood: Research From Multiple Perspectives edited by Kathleen A. Roskos
Gymboree 1001 Fun Ways to Play by Susan Elisabeth Davis and Nancy Wilson Hall