You’re a busy parent, and I know there are times you feel guilty about putting everything you have to do aside so you can spend a few moments just playing with your kids. Please give yourself permission to let that guilty feelings go. Playing with your kids isn’t irresponsible and definitely isn’t wasting time. In fact, it’s one of the best things you can do for their development, their relationship with you, and your own sense of well-being.

When we’re kids, play comes naturally. Our first impulse is to fill every waking moment with games and other activities. It’s enjoyable, it’s good for our bodies and our minds, and it helps shape the adults we eventually become. But all too often, adults forget about how much they enjoy play, and focus instead on everything they “have” to do, teaching responsibility, and rearing kids to become hard working adults.

Here’s the thing though. Play is a great way to reduce your own stress and anxiety. Besides having fun and breaking out of routine, play gets you breathing, and breathing helps your body overcome those feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. The extra oxygen and enjoyment will also make your kids feel less anxious, and when you reduce the level of anxiety, you’re better able to build connections with each other. In that way, playing also draws us closer together.

Teach your kids those timeless neighborhood games you remember from childhood, like kick the can, freeze tag, hopscotch, hide and seek, and flashlight tag. Encourage them to play simple games of whiffle ball or soccer with the neighbors. They don’t always need to be in organized leagues or building skills for college scholarships. Those neighborhood pickup games may be even more important, because they’ll learn valuable life skills like how to reach out to others and how to resolve conflicts. After all, if you can’t resolve an argument, you have to stop playing, and nobody wants that to happen. Adults are often too quick to intervene when kids should be learning how to solve their own conflicts.

Play doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. You don’t have to go to a fancy water park, because kids have just as much fun with a garden hose and kiddie pool in the backyard. Walk with them to the neighborhood park, or for a real treat, take them to a different playground in a nearby town. They’ll enjoy the newness of that just as much as a vacation — and maybe more so, because there’s less stress.

Instead of sitting back and watching, try playing with them. Yes, act silly. Kids love it when they see their parents goofing around, and you’ll enjoy hearing their laughter. You may not have the stamina to play tag with them for an hour, but even a few minutes of play will strengthen your bond and create memories that will last a lifetime. At home, break out board games and jigsaw puzzles, or teach them your favorite card game. Yes, kids love to spend hours staring at their favorite video games, but when you offer a family game as an alternative, you may be surprised how excited they’ll become.

If you feel like your relationship with your kids isn’t what it should be, try playing with them, and you’ll be likely to see things improve. Not sure how to start or worried that stress and anxiety are overwhelming either of you? Maybe it’s time to have a conversation with one of our professional counselors. We can show you simple ways to restore fun to your busy lives.

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