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Confession: I don't know how to play with my kids

A few scenarios:

James and Stacey

James comes into mediation because his ex-wife, Stacey is keen that he should ‘step up to the plate’ and commit to spending time with their 3 year-old son Charlie. James is very defensive about making any commitment, telling Stacey and the mediator about his work and other ‘important’ commitments that make it difficult for him to be sure of being available for Charlie on a regular basis. In fact, James is trying to make sure that he only agrees to see Charlie when his mother – Charlie’s grandma – is available to help.

Past criticisms of James have sapped whatever confidence James might have had and he is terrified by the prospect of having to entertain Charlie for three solid hours.

Eventually, provoked by Stacey’s taunts, James blurts out ‘But I don’t know how to play.

Samantha and Gavin

Samantha is coming to her mediation session with her ex Gavin, because Gavin has threatened to apply to court for a Child Arrangement Order so that he can enforce his ‘right to contact’ with his daughter Abbie. Samantha is very reluctant to allow two year-old Abbie out of her sight with Gavin. She recalls that Gavin was not a very hands-on dad – giving more attention to his phone than to his daughter.

After a number of exchanges in the mediation session, Samantha observes caustically of Gavin: ‘He wouldn’t have the first idea what to do with her; he doesn’t even know how to play.’

Family Mediators are familiar with conversations like this in which there is a genuine worry (and all Mums worry) or anxiety (and most Dads are, behind any bluster, anxious) about basic competence around children.

So, we asked an expert (actually a retired Speech and Language Therapist) about engaging in play with young children. Here are her tips:

  • Let the child take the lead. Playing is their personal specialty and we need to enter into their play world at their level of development. So we can watch what they are doing and then join in.

  • Ask the child for their direction and do it. “So does the car go here?” “Do you want the cards standing up or lying down?”

  • Even with little ones we can imitate what they are doing, banging a rattle “We’re banging”, stacking bricks “Big tower” or babbling.

  • We may want to suggest new activates to the play but be prepared for them to be rejected and go with the child’s ideas. “Does baby want to go in the bath? No, stay pram.”

  • However, if we let the child be over prescriptive and bossy, we are modelling a way of behaving that will not be helpful when playing with other children. So do limit this.

  • Repetition is good. Part of the learning process is to replay actions or scenarios. This allows the child to establish their skills and try out slight variations.

  • So we need to be patient!! We may be heartily sick of playing their game for the 20th time but stick with it.

  • Give the child a ‘play commentary’. Just describe what the child or you are doing in very simple language. “The car is going to the fire station. Oh no! The car has crashed.” This helps the child to develop their language.

  • Only have a few toys out for the child to play with, perhaps three or four. If the child has too many choices it may be overwhelming and may stop them settling down to play.

  • If your child is finding it hard to settle to play start quietly playing with one toy and see if they come to join you.

  • TV can be a tool. We tend to see watching TV as being a ’bad thing’ but sitting with a child and sharing their favourite programme, making comments about the programme and joining any activities in the programme can be a good relaxing and bonding activity.

  • Be prepared to get on the floor!

  • Be sure to find ways to play that are fun for you as well as your child. It should be a joy, not a duty. E.g., not doing painting if being messy is not your thing.

  • Be prepared to let your child know when you need a break. Playing is hard work and a time out for both of you is good.

Follow, Repeat, Commentate

Oh yes, and put that …. phone back in your pocket and leave it there.

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