Over the holidays, when my kids were little we played pretend all the time. I admit I got a little bored of being a magic horse that could also make chocolate chip cookies, but I knew it was important. Now that my kids are older (tweens and teens) I’m wondering if we’re still supposed to be “playing”, and if so, how do you play with a 12 year old?
By nature, we are born to play; it’s instinctual. Play is still incredibly important to adolescents. It helps them thrive by connecting their ideas, feelings, and creativity, to what they understand about the world. It helps to further develop their sense of well-being and identity. Play can also help develop a sense of command and resiliency over their responses to tragedies, setbacks, and obstacles. Additionally, if a teen is experiencing anxiety, play can calm and relax him while simultaneously stimulating the brain and body. Truly, play is fundamental to physical, emotional, and social growth.
So, how can you make sure tween or teens log some playtime?
Make play YOUR priority. Playtime isn’t just for kids; it is equally important for you to play. Just as getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising is important to physical and mental health, so is play. As adults, it becomes easy to take playtime for granted when we have an endless task list of laundry, meal prep, sports, shopping, chauffeuring, working, and more. However, play is the time when a majority of parents say they feel most alive, and kids feel more connected to their parents. So, eschew the laundry and maybe shoot some hoops with your kids.
Forget what others think. It’s easy to worry about what others may think if you are getting silly or goofy with your kids. Stop. When you let loose and act goofy, your tween-to-teens will see a side of you that gets them excited. Yes, they may also get a little embarrassed but it helps them to see you as an individual rather than only mom or dad.
Let teens choose activities that interest them. You can suggest new things or present new options, but give them permission to be in charge. Adolescents spend their days being told “do this”, and “don’t do this”. Their lives are often busting at the seams with schedules, homework, rules, decisions, work, and more leaving them few opportunities to flex their voice and their independence muscle.
Hang with some playful people. Selecting friends who are playful provides more opportunities for both you and your teen to connect, to alleviate stress, to laugh and to enjoy life. If your adolescent is feeling a little resistant to hanging out with playful people, see if you can babysit a friend’s younger child (or even a kitten or puppy!). Playing with little ones offers new perspective and can help your own child re-experience the magic of play.
Understand what play looks like. When your kids were little, they asked to “play pretend”. That’s not going to happen with a twelve-year-old. So what will playing look like? A client of mine has a thirteen year old who loves a popular teen soap opera. The mom also started watching the show and she and her daughter have in-depth conversations about the characters. “Can you believe she said that?” the mom might ask. “What would you have said?” Without the teen even knowing it, she and her mom are now engaged in a make-believe conversation. Some adolescents choose to draw maps or images from their favorite books. Creating songs as a way of studying difficult subjects in school is playful, as is creating family or neighborhood newspapers. Scavenger hunts, board games, card games, video games (hellllooo Fortnite) and sports are other fun and completely appropriate types of play for teens
Whatever kind of play your teen chooses, it’s important that you pay attention and focus on the game. This is critical to your child’s self esteem. Whether you are hiking in the run, playing a video game, or just singing a few goofy songs, you are showing your child that you accept and value him or her. Stuart Brown, author of Play, said it best “Play is the purest expression of love’>