When Play Feels Like A Chore

The language of childhood is play.

Through play, children learn about who they are and the world around them. Play is how children learn social-emotional skills like problem-solving, impulse control, empathy, and relationship management. On top of all of these attributes, play is just plain fun.

And while playtime certainly helps to meet children’s physical and emotional needs, making time for play on a regular basis can feel hard for parents.  

Barriers To Play

Your child asks you to pretend to be a unicorn, to act like superheroes, or to be a choo-choo train that runs around the dining room table, and you find yourself thinking Nope. Not for meCan’t do itBored to tears.

According to research, while parents agree that play is essential, it is not always a top priority, and some adults find it downright difficult. 

The State of Play, Back to Basics report interviewed 2,000 parents and 2,000 children aged 5 to 15 about their play habits and concluded that play is in danger of becoming a “lost art,” with 21% of parents struggling to engage their children in creative and imaginative activities that will help their development.

We wanted to know more about which facets of play parents find most challenging, so we asked hundreds of parents in our online community. Following are the top five barriers to play that the parents shared: 

1. Parents feel busy.

Making dinner, cleaning the house, running errands, work responsibilities, family obligations, not to mention friends and “me-time”… the list goes on. Parents told us that it is hard to silence the to-do lists long enough to be present and play with their kids. 

One mom shared, “I’m always left with more to plan, more to clean, just more in general. It’s a balance between wanting to have a relationship with my kids in a way that feels good to them, and wanting to get everything done, which feels good to me. When my list of to-dos is long, it’s hard for me to have fun.” 

2. Parents feel bored.

The way children want to play is often not the way that parents want to play. For one thing, children love to do the same thing over and over again. This is how their brains are wired to learn. Pretend-play gives children a chance to try on adult roles like preparing food, driving, doing yard work, or taking care of babies. As adults, we already have these skills, so pretend-play can seem boring.

One father of a two-year-old shared, “I want to. I try. I just can’t. I like structure, and pretend play doesn’t have that. Not going to lie, it’s boring. When my daughter asks me to play Barbies, I cringe a little.”

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3. Parents struggle to value play.

The parents in our community told us that many of them were not encouraged to see play as valuable in their own childhood years — that they were either not provided with play opportunities, or that their parents simply viewed playing as a low priority. And because the adults in their lives did not see play as “time well spent” when they were children, they find it challenging to value play as an adult. In fact, some shared that they view play as frivolous and unproductive. 

“Honestly, I hate to play. I’m so task-oriented. I think it comes from my childhood where play was not valued. Performance was how I achieved validation – things like keeping my room clean, staying out of trouble and getting good grades. When I do stop to play, it feels like a waste of time,” shares one mama.  

4. Parents find play leads to sibling rivalry.

Can play lead to competition for attention? That was a complaint we heard from nearly a third of the parents we interviewed who said that playing with their kids was stressful because it led to family squabbles.

In one parent’s words, “When I play with my kids, it never fails — my two and four-year-old start battling for my attention until it spirals downward into fighting. I’m thinking why do I bother because everyone, including myself, just ends up feeling frustrated.”

5. Parents struggle to play with children of different ages.

When parents have children of different developmental or chronicle ages, it can mystify parents on how to play in ways that bridge the gap. 

One mom of two shared, “My daughter is five and has been diagnosed with autism and my two-year-old son is “neurotypical.” My daughter doesn’t interact with my son at all yet, and I can’t seem to figure out how to connect with both of them at the same time. Playing just seems hard.” 

Setting Goals

While there are many roadblocks when it comes to making time to play with their children, nearly every parent we spoke to shared their interest in doing this very thing. These parents were motivated to find solutions. Here are just a few of their comments:

  • “I would like to be present with my kids, even if it is just five minutes with a clear mind.”
  • “I want to enjoy playing with my children for what it is. Maybe I can even learn a little from my children on how to slow down.”
  • “I want to find ways to play that are engaging for my kids and interesting for me. And bonus if it teaches them skills like patience and taking turns.”
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Getting Back To Basics

Parents, we hear both your struggles and your desire to slow life down and to connect with your children. Here are a few tips to make playtime easier and more enjoyable:

  • Understand why kids want to play. When children ask us to play, it’s a request for connection. They want to involve us in their worlds and fill their need for “mama” or “papa” time. According to Judy Ellis, Chair, FIT Toy Design Department, “play is not only the way kids connect with us, but it’s also the way they learn … and it’s a great way for parents to learn about their children, too.” 
  • Speak the same play language. Play is, by definition, something you want to do, and the key to having fun while playing with your children is to find a mutually enjoyable activity. Here are a few ideas: 
    • Read books
    • Go swimming
    • Paint or create art
    • Build something together
    • Go on a nature walk or bike ride
    • Play board games, card games or outside games 
    • Snuggle
    • Turn on some music and dance
    • Run around the living room or have a pillow fight
  • Invite children into your world. When your “to-do” list feels never-ending, invite your children to join you in getting things crossed off your list in playful ways. Think sock sorting races, or recruiting your child as your sous chef in the kitchen as you prep for dinner. Involving your child can check two boxes at once, turning a mundane task into a moment of connection. 
  • Get comfortable with boundaries. If your child wants to play and you either can’t or do not want to in that moment, place your focus on what you can or will do. You might reply with, “I’m all done playing superheroes right now, but I would love to play LEGOs. Do you want to build something together?”, or “Would you like to color together once I get these groceries put away?”
  • Say no with a yes. You are in the middle of cooking breakfast or working, or maybe, you just simply aren’t in the mood. It is okay if now isn’t a good time for you to play. Instead of completely declining your child’s request, find ways to say no with a yes. For example, you might say:  “Yes, I would love to play with you. Go ahead and play what you are playing right now, and then at 2 PM (or “when this timer goes off”, or “when the baby takes a nap”, or even “tomorrow”, etc…), I will join you.” 
  • Schedule it. If you like structure, order, and routine, designating playtime with your children can be helpful. You can schedule it quietly, putting 10-15 minutes of “playtime” on your daily calendar as a reminder for yourself alone, or share it with your child, making it a daily or weekly playful ritual they can look forward to. 
  • Get out of the house. If your to-do list seems hard to escape, it can be helpful to get out of the house. Parents told us that they had an easier time focusing on their children when they were away from other things that pull for their attention. 

There are many reasons parents can feel like playtime is no fun at all, so if you are a parent who feels this way, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Let go of any guilt, and honor your feelings.

Name it to tame it, staying curious about your feelings instead of judging them. Your feelings are not “right” or “wrong”, but they are helpful, especially when we are able to put thoughts and words to them.

Playing with our children can come in many forms, so if pretending to be a cat does not sound like fun to you — it’s okay. Celebrate this awareness and go rock the things you do enjoy doing with your child, because even more than playing makebelieve, your children love you for being you.

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