Kids love our attention, but, how much attention do they really need in order to fill their cups? And, is it our attention that they're seeking, or is it our connection? More importantly, what kind of play is the best?
As parents, we have a limited amount of time and energy that we can devote to being 100% with our kids before we either get busy, tired, burnt out or annoyed. It's normal. And, everyone has different levels of tolerance for the amount of time they can play with their kids. I know some people who romp around with the kids for hours, and to them, this post may even seem silly. But, for others, it can be difficult to know exactly how much time you really need to 'play' before you need to stop and meet your own needs. I can 'be' with my kids all day, but the amount of time I actually 'play' with them, usually maxes out after about 20 minutes.
Children Don't Need To Be Entertained 24/7, But You Should Include Them
Children, even babies, love to be involved with the day-to-day family activities. It's not always convenient for the parents, but if you can afford a little time and patience, it will give them some of that feeling-loved-and-included quota. Let them do the stuff around the house with you. Dishes, laundry, wiping, vacuuming, etc. Sometimes you don't have the patience for it, or it's not always at an appropriate time, but see where you can fit it in.
Use High Energy Laughter Play
Sitting around and playing tea party is fun, but it's not that high concentrate of play that children really thrive off of. Also, this type of play has a tendency to bore adults. So, chose an activity or silly game that is high energy and makes you both laugh. Make sure the child is comfortable and understands the game. Hide and seek. Chasing. Peek-a-boo. Pretend you can't do something (I sometimes pretend that I'm a floppy rag doll and that I can't sit up properly; the kids crack up trying to help me sit up). Contingency games, role reversal games and power reversal games are great. As the child gets older, the type of play will change.
Look For Signs That They're in Need of Playtime
Are they yelling out "Watch this! Look at me!" every five seconds? Or, maybe they ask you to sit down and read 10,000 books. Or, maybe play cars for hours. Or maybe they're acting extremely obnoxious. If so... that's a good indication that they need some high energy connection/play time.
Set Aside All Other Distractions if Possible
The phone goes away. Don't be in the middle of cooking dinner. Be really 100% present.
What If You Don't Like Playing Your Children?
Let's be honest, many of us don't, and that's ok. Look at your own childhood. Were there times when you wished your parents could have played with you and they didn't? Maybe you're hanging on to those old feelings? It's ok. You don't have to feel guilty about not wanting to play with your child. You also might really not have the time or energy to play with our children, especially if you're not feeling well. In that case...
Give Yourself a Time Limit, to Avoid Burnout
If you feel like you'll have to play for hours, you will likely feel resentful. But, if you give yourself a time limit. Say, five minutes per day of high energy play. Or, even half an hour, once a week, then, you won't feel like playing with the kids is such a big deal. It gives them their dose of connection and you won't feel trapped. Let them know when you're going to finish playing. Give them some sort of "one more time" and then stop. If they cry and complain because they want to keep playing, that's ok. Often, high energy play brings up emotions, like tears. Let them know you understand that they're upset, but that the play needs to finish. Giving yourself a time limit seems over-prescriptive, but if you're the type of person who will avoid playing with your kids because you don't enjoy it, then keeping track of time is probably a good idea.
Don't Turn Play Time Into Something Educational
Unless the child specifically asks for it. This is your time to goof off and be completely silly. You may even purposely be anti-educational to have more fun. Sing the wrong words to a song. Pretend you can't read properly or break the rules on purpose.
The Difference Between Attention and Being Present
We give our children attention all day long when they need things, but being 'present' is different. It means you really connect with them. See the difference and do your best to be 'present' with them while doing play time.
Their Physical Contact Quota Needs to Be Refilled Regularly.
Ever wonder why your kid comes crashing onto you annoyingly? Or you find them obnoxiously under your feet? You think it's their lack of coordination and awareness... but think again. A lot of times, they are looking for physical connection and they'll get it any way they can. Younger children and especially babies need much more contact, less so as they get more mobile. But, don't be tricked if older children don't come begging for physical touch. They also need a certain amount of contact time from a loving carer. Even if a child just sits on your lap while you're reading a book, they're getting that physical contact that they thrive on. You can play little games, like hand clapping (pat-a-cake), sing songs with hand movements, like 'Row row row your boat', or even contingency games where the kid presses a part of your body, like your nose, and you make a corresponding noise. Piggyback rides are a favorite with my kids. Co-sleeping and babywearing are excellent ways for a child to receive his or her physical contact quota. Avoid tickling, blowing raspberries and other contact that invades your child's sense of personal space.
Set a Loving Limit When Playtime is Over or Gets Too Crazy
When you've really had enough, or time is up, tell them that the play will finish and then end it. Or, if they start hurting you, or destroying things, end the play. They might cry afterwards and it's ok. Kids harbor negative emotions, like anger and frustration and sometimes the laughter and connection time spent with a person they love can bring up those emotions. Let them know that you understand and hear them. My kids almost always have a big cry after a big play. They either get hurt or they get upset. They laugh, then they cry. Then AFTERWARDS, they are a delight.
There's no quick and easy for knowing EXACTLY how much time one particular child needs you to play with them. Some kids need more than others. My little one will happily play on her own for hours. Her happy go lucky attitude actually gets us in trouble sometimes, because I forget to play with her, but she needs that connection time too. My older one is in my face all day asking to play, so I never forget.
Our society sends mixed messages to us about how much time we should be spending with our children. Spend too much time connecting with your kids and people accuse you of letting your children run your life. Spend too much time doing your own thing, and you feel guilty because you haven't made enough time for the kids. So, don't worry. Do your best to bring balance. The balance changes on a day to day basis and depends on your needs and the needs of your children. Whatever you do, make sure to have a little fun!