You might turn to some dads for advice on what car to buy or how to refinish your floors. But with my dad, I turn to him for advice on children. As a teacher and a professional storyteller, my dad has a magical way of captivating children’s attention. He’s my daughter’s number one favorite person and my inspiration for loving learning (and learning about children!).
So when my dad, John Boe, offered up his advice on how to play with children, I knew we could all benefit from his wisdom. Here are his eight tips for making the most of play time:
Get on The Child’s Level
One rule, which I learned from watching my mother play with children, is the most important: Get on the child’s level. There are of course two meanings here, but the most important is probably the literal. If you are on the sofa, and the child is on the floor, you really cannot play together. You should both be on the sofa, or, preferably, both on the floor. If you want to woo a child get down on the floor (or in the grass) with them. I remember being in London with my granddaughter Stella, almost two. Occasionally we would run into people we knew, and while my wife talked to them I would sprawl in the dirt with Stella, examining the interesting London rubbish.
The second meaning is of course also most applicable. To use the California cliché, you have try to get in touch with your inner child. All our selves are somewhere still alive in us—you can get in touch with your inner 19-year-old, 12-year-old, 4-year-old (I am most in touch with him when I stutter, as he did). This is of course an imperfect process, but if you play in the sand striving for the fascination a two-year-old plays in the sand with (SAND! HOW WONDERFUL!), you will be on the right path.
And so, obviously, if you are playing with numbers with a child, you will not be starting with calculus but with counting; if you are playing with cooking, you might start with cookies but not veal cordon bleu.
Try to steer the play toward what you really enjoy, for if you don’t actually enjoy the playing, you probably won’t do it very well or very long. Some folks like music, some cooking, some balls, some numbers, some clay, some drawing, some books, etc.
Despite the previous rule, most of all pay attention to what the child wants. If the child is obsessed trucks, play with trucks—and try to enjoy it.
The Power of Touch
Physical contact is good. Hug, touch, hold hands, sit the child in your lap, on your back.
Go With the Flow
Play is improvisatory. The pleasure is in the surprises that come up. So the adult needs to obey the first rule of improv: To whatever your partner (the child) says, you say, “Yes, and….” Of course the child will not be obeying this rule. When she says, “I’m a baby panda bear,” and you say “I’m a baby Koala bear,” and when she says, “No! you’re a daddy panda bear,” you are of course now a daddy panda bear.
The World is a Playground
Everything is a toy and everywhere is a playground. I remember meeting my granddaughter when she was just walking and not really talking at the Oakland airport. She didn’t know who I was. But while we were waiting for the luggage, I walked with her to a water fountain, turned it on, and helped her reach up and feel the water with her hands. Over and over she experienced the joy of having water rush over her.
Steady Your Energy
The younger the child, the softer and higher you should speak. Manic energy—throwing the child around—is great; I have often done so. But in the long run, slow and steady is how you play.
More Play, More Benefits
Quantity time counts more than quality time. This is a bitter truth. It’s better to spend many hours playing in the dirt than one fancy trip to Disneyland.
Play is an attitude to life. And so it really is usually more fun to hang with a two-year-old than to talk with an adult about politics or global warming. The main point of play is not developmental education, but the pleasure generated. Life should be fun, no matter what your age. Everyone has a right to joy on a daily basis.