What about play?

A four year old sits playing with a train. He moves it slowly back and forth. After a while, he looks over to Dad and then looks down at his train. Dad is sitting in a chair, watching his son intently. As Dad watches he says, “What colour is that train?” With no response from his child he tries again; “Come on, what colour is your train?”

I imagine that this father feels lost as he tries to play with his child. There is something happening between them which feels uncomfortable and uncertain but also shows their desire to connect.

What hinders parents in playing?

As parents we can sometimes feel like this father where play does not feel natural, safe or real. Sometimes the seamless use of play in the everyday exchanges with our children are lost as we struggle to free ourselves enough to join with them. We need to be less tough on ourselves…play can feel unnatural or uncomfortable for some of us, particularly when we have never had experiences of this in our childhood.

What is Play?

If you have ever had contact with an Occupational Therapist, you will know that we often talk about a child’s occupation around play and their capacity to be playful. In more practical terms, what we are saying is that play is very important for children. It is a skill that helps children learn about themselves, about their relationships with others, and about the world they live in. Play allows children to make sense of their worries, conflicts, and to learn new ways to cope. Theories of play have shown that interactive play is a great way for children to learn how to regulate their emotions and behaviours[1].

So, what do our children ask of us in these moments?

“If you provide your child with lots of imaginative, exploratory activities, you will activate the seeking system in her brain. When this system is working, your child will have an appetite for life, curiosity, and the drive and motivation to make her creative ideas into a reality” (Sunderland, 2006, p. 109).

It often takes courage, to allow ourselves to open up about our struggles. Therapy can be uncomfortable when we try to learn new ways to be in relationship, to allow ourselves to feel vulnerable as we attempt new things with our child, and to allow ourselves opportunities to fail and to recover. Play can also be a struggle when our children have particular developmental challenges. Learning how to connect as you play with your child can take time and may be difficult. The rewards however, can be life changing for you both.

What can help you?

  • Enter the play space – find time for play even it is for small moments in the day to sit with your child face-to-face.
  • Sensitively, follow your child’s play – resist the urge to bring lots of toys into your games or to force play in times when your child needs you in other ways. You are the greatest gift you can offer your child in play.
  • Encourage curiosity and wonder – give your child space to think through play ideas.
  • Take the lead when needed – help your child by making the play experience successful for you both. Sometimes your child needs you to show them that mum or dad is in charge here.
  • Be prepared to learn to play again – work in partnership with your child and find new ways to match your own and your child’s temperament and play style.

When you feel more help is needed:

If you feel concerned about your own or your child’s capacity to play, it may help to talk with a parent-child therapist.



[1] Cooper & Stagnitti, 2009; Cordier & Bundy, 2009; Lieberman, 1993; Sunderland, 2006


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About Catherine

Catherine Daly is an Occupational Therapist and Psychotherapist working with children and families struggling with emotional, behavioural, developmental and mental health difficulties.