Teaching Children to Play

Oct 26, 2022

by Riley Bird, Parent Trainer

“He gets bored easily.”

“She’s always asking me to play with her.”

“He has trouble finding something to do and then just bothers everyone else instead.”

“I need her to play on her own sometimes and she won’t.”

We often hear these kinds of things from foster parents-that their new child has a hard time playing independently or self-entertaining; “It’s like he has no idea what to do!”

What if we told you that this in fact may be exactly right? He may not actually know how to play.

We take for granted that most children seem to just know how to play, that it’s naturally something they do when given the free time to do it. But actually when you think about it, we teach play to children right from birth. Those early days of infancy are spent making silly faces, playing peekaboo, and engaging toys playfully in front of them. In essence, we teach children how to play right from the beginning of life.

But what if that’s not how you spent the first year of your life?

Or the second?

In many cases, the children we welcome into our homes through foster care experienced extreme neglect in their early years and that has affected their ability to do something as seemingly natural as playing. Many of them lived early years in environments of toxic stress where letting your guard down to play would have been hard. Also, not all of them had an engaged caregiver who took the time to play with them and teach them. For a child to be able to learn to play, they not only need to be taught, but they also need to feel safe. For a lot of our kids, they didn’t have either of these things. It makes sense then, that when our 9-year-old comes to us, he may not actually know how to play.

The good news is: WE can teach them! Actually, we GET to teach them.

This is a wonderful gift we get to give them and ourselves. As foster/adoptive parents, we often wish we could “go back and undo” the harm that was done to our children. While we will never be able to do that, we can “go back and give” them things they missed. One of those gifts is play.

So, how do we do that?

We first need to make sure we’ve established some felt-safety for our children. It’s not enough for our children to be told that they’re safe, they need to feel it. Structure, routine, and predictability help to establish this sense of felt-safety for our children and we can actually take this into our playtime with them.

Make it a part of your regular routine. Sometimes in order to remember to do something consistently, we have to intentionally schedule it and set a reminder. We can often get caught up in our day to day and if we aren’t intentional, we can easily forget and teaching a child to play is going to need to be a consistent ongoing experience-not a one-time thing. Adding short playtimes together into our daily or weekly life rhythms can help, not only us to remember to do it, but also our children to come to expect it and feel safe with that predictability. Maybe every afternoon after lunch is 30 minutes of play together, maybe every evening after dinner is when you can fit it in, or maybe it can be done during the weekend when there’s more time.

Store the activities in a central place, in a clear or labeled container. Having all of the activity options available in one place and each in their own container alleviates an overwhelming and overstimulating environment like a lot of playrooms can be for our kids. Children are often overwhelmed by toys and activities if they are all just tossed together in a bin. It is hard for them to sort out what their options for play are, and therefore, often results in them dumping the bin of toys on the floor and walking away with nothing. If they are organized by type and separated, it not only makes it easier for our kids to make a choice, but it also makes it easier for them to clean up afterwards. Double win! In fact, when it comes to toys, less is more so take this opportunity to purge and simplify your collection!

Create a list of the activity choices you have available. This can be as simple as a written list on a piece of paper taped to the fridge. This centralizes the options and makes them clear and visible. Our kids, especially those who may have difficulty organizing and processing things, tend to have a hard time even remembering what things they have available to do. So, having a visible reference list can be very helpful for them to remember their options and make a choice. For younger children that can’t read, you can use photos or pictures for the activities. As you are teaching your child to play, you can say, “let’s choose something from the list together.” For children who struggle with too many options, just start with 3-5 of their favorites on the list and add more as they are successful. Eventually when you have coregulated this step with them and they have downtime in the future you can say, “You have 30 minutes before dinner time why don’t you choose an activity from the list.”

Walk through the entire play activity with them. During the part of the day that you have set aside to teach your child to play, begin by walking through the entire process with them. Start with “Let’s play something together. Here, let’s look at the list and decide what activity we would like to do. Do you want to play with Playdoh or Legos? Great choice! Let’s go get the Playdoh.” Walk with them to where the activity is kept, find and choose the Playdoh. Play with them, modeling how you can use the different tools in the container to make different things. Challenge yourselves to see if you can make a certain object together. Then, clean up the playdoh together and return it to where it is kept. This process repeated over and over again gives your child the mental model to do it on their own in the future!

Step away for increasing increments of time. After several times of walking through the whole Playdoh process together, staying and playing with them the entire time, you can begin to step away for increasing increments of time. Tell your child that he should keep playing but that you are going to step away for 5 minutes to unload the dishwasher nearby. Then, return and play for a few more minutes when you’re done. Step away again for 5 minutes to load the dirty dishes. Then return and play again. The next time you play, you can increase the number of times you step away or the amount of time you are away. This will gradually leave your child playing independently for increasing amounts of time, thus growing his capacity to entertain himself and play alone. Over time, the child may begin to choose play options independently for himself without your support. For some kids, they will always need a bit more structure in their play and that is where the organization of the activities and the list will come in extra helpful. When you see them struggling to occupy themselves, you can point out the list and help them find something to do.

*If you have other children in the home that know how to play they can serve as great models but understand that the skill will need to be taught by an adult and not left up to the other children in the home to teach. It may be easier because you have other kids you can bring into the play process, but a child isn’t going to learn just by being thrown into the mix with them. Parent coregulation is an important part of the learning process. Otherwise, as the child is learning, you will likely see more sibling conflict. Adult modeling and being part of the process can decrease the challenge between siblings during this time.

A special note about our older youth: The above process can work for all ages-we’ve seen it done with littles and older kids as well. Please don’t think that our teens are too old for this kind of modeling. For so many of them, life has been about survival and they have missed out on so many of the normal childhood experiences we take for granted. You absolutely can do something like this with your teen to give them back a sense of play. If you have younger kids in the home, you can use them to invite the older youth into play that might seem too young for them. Maybe your teen wouldn’t sit down with you alone to play Playdoh but maybe he would join the whole family in playing if the younger kids were doing it too. Then your younger kids can join you in modeling play for the older youth. But also, we know that our youth are usually developmentally younger than their chronological age which means that we shouldn’t assume they don’t want to play with certain things because of their age. We have numerous stories we could tell of older youth joyfully playing with dolls and toys made for younger kids.

Never underestimate how much healing can come when our youth get to let down their guard and just PLAY.


Use this guide as you pray about your response:

8 Ways Your Family Can End the Foster Care Crisis

(…whether you become a foster family or not).

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