Teaching through Play

Let’s talk about something fun today, play! Across all ages, play is essential for development. Research shows that play is a natural way to learn social skills, and it can help build children’s skills in communication, emotion, cognition, physical fitness, and creativity. Playing is learning for our kids. Playing with our children is also an excellent way of building connection with them into our days. As our kids get older, sometimes we forget about the power of play, but being playful is important for our kids from when they are very little through adulthood. Play might look different as our kids get older- from playing with dolls to playing a sport- but there can always be an aspect of play in our lives.


Looking at how important play is, it can be helpful to approach parenting from a playful perspective. When we are correcting our children, we are teaching them something. There is a new skill or tool they are still learning or working on. Thus, putting play and teaching together is a very natural way to correct kids and teach them new skills. At times, when we correct our kids, it turns on their shame response, even when we had no intention of putting any shame on them. The shame response can bring the “shutdown” mode we see in kids when getting corrected, which isn’t where we want them to be if we are simply trying to teach them something new. Being playful can help bring fun into the learning phase and help our children learn that being corrected does not need to bring on a shame response; rather, it is just a natural part of our lives to learn something new. Correcting can be done playfully- and will be a lot easier on the parent in the long run as well. Have you ever been caught in the loop of saying something like, “How many times have I told you to do this?” and feel like your child isn’t listening? Research has shown us that it can take up to 400 times of repeating something to our children before they start to learn that new behavior. That’s a lot of time and repetition! Do you know how many times it takes for a child to learn something if we do it playfully? Twelve to thirteen times. This could take a lot less time for us as parents and we can all have a lot more fun while doing it! 


A few ideas for playful correction (or teaching):

  1. Use a playful tone: Make a fun song or do a silly dance when your child does something “wrong”, like forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. You can also make up fun, quick sayings that remind them to put their clothes in the basket like “Stinky Socks!,” making your child laugh and reminding them to go back and do it correctly. 


  1. Providing a redo: This is an easy, playful way to teach a new behavior to your child while also building muscle memory. After doing this a few times, you can use short reminders like “Rewind!” or “Oops! Let’s try that again!” to get your child to go back and try again. This is a playful way of having your child try again if they do something “wrong”, like forgetting to ask before getting something. This way, the child can playfully go back and practice asking the correct question.


  1. Using role models: This is a fun way to practice new skills through play and practice. You can have your child engage in a role play with you about practicing how to ask permission before grabbing a toy from their sibling next time. You can make it silly too! Like having the child show you the wrong way of how to do it, and then having them try again with the correct way. Bring out all the fun props and drama for this one! You can also use stuffed animals, puppets, or dolls to demonstrate how to do this.  It’s playful and brings muscle memory into practicing these skills. 


Using some of these playful parenting approaches can bring more fun (for them and for us) into teaching our children new skills! What are some other fun ways you can be playful with your child today?


Michelle Molina, LCSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worker