Play with your child

School holidays are often a trying time for parents. How do you keep your kids occupied in a positive way? Well, fortunately not all activities have to be educational – experts agree parents should give children more opportunity to simply play.

Playing is an essential part of a young child’s development, says Garsfontein psychologist Jolanda Dreyer, who herself has two children aged three and seven respectively. “It helps them process and integrate their world so they can make sense of what’s going on around them.”

Play is like a language for kids, with toys as the words. “For a child, playing is the same as you, as a mother, going for coffee with your best friend. When you’re finished you understand the world better.”

Playing doesn’t necessarily mean outings or educational activities. “You don’t have to go to the trouble of acquiring expensive toys. Tennis lessons or jigsaws are structured play – there are rules. Just play with your child.”

How does Mom play too?

Make sure you’re seated on the same level as your child – flat on the floor next to them if necessary, Jolanda says. “Simply start by telling your child what you see and pay attention to what they do. Sometimes children just want to know someone takes an interest, someone notices what they do.” Describe the process and say aloud, “Oh, Mommy sees you’ve moved the car that way.” Then wait for the child to ask you to play with them. “When your child invites you, don’t hesitate to play with them. But don’t try to give the game any structure,” Jolanda says. “The child is in charge. Ask them, ‘What should we do now?’ ” Don’t feel hurt if the child prefers to play alone, but do give them enough opportunity to invite you if they want to.

It’s also a good idea to set up a little play corner at home and set aside a special playtime. “Tell your daughter, ‘When Mommy gets home we’re going to have a nice teatime together.’ But then give her the chance to tell you how the teatime should unfold.’’

The value of imagination

Children enjoy playing with anything that represents something in “real life”, Jolanda explains. “The more their imagination is involved the better.” That’s why she doesn’t like toys that make sounds. “In my practice I remove the batteries from all those toys and if children ask about it I tell them they must make the fire engine sounds themselves.”

Imagination games are excellent for a child’s development, Cape Town educational psychologist Anel Annandale agrees. “Children automatically engage in problemsolving during imaginative play when they’re required to plan the events and sequence the correct order.”

Imagination games help children see the world from different perspectives and help them develop empathy, Anel says. They can also empower them. “Children are able to experience what it may be like to be the parent/doctor/firefighter and to have control over a fantasy situation.”

- Suzaan Hauman

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