How to Turn Playing With Children Into Child’s Play

    Zachary Kadolph/Unsplash

Source: Zachary Kadolph/Unsplash

I secretly love it when someone says they’re not a “child person.” These are the people who might respond to a toddler saying, “I’m a princess,” with a cruel, “No, you’re not.”

They struggle to follow the flights of fancy that children are so famous for.

Parents can also fall into this category. They say they’re not silly and don’t play. They planted both feet firmly in adulthood, and that’s it.

But there is evidence that playful parents produce socially savvy and resourceful youngsters.

But first, let’s talk about what it’s like to be playful with your kids. And it isn’t.

Playful upbringing

Much has been written about our parenting evolution over the centuries, from the fact that we are not expected to play with our children (like always) to today’s unrealistic expectation that we entertain our children (like all the time) . As is often the case, using play to connect with our children falls somewhere between these extremes.

    Joice Kelly/Unsplash

Credit: Joice Kelly/Unsplash

Children need free play time and time to explore without being expected to follow the lead of their caregiver. However, children can also benefit from connecting with their guardians through imaginative play. But playing with your child doesn’t mean doing what they tell you to do, any more than bossing children around. It’s a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, similar to a brainstorming session. When it works, both parties are having fun, listening to each other, and trying to make the game enjoyable for everyone.

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This is where the “yeah, and…” rule of improvisation comes in, especially for all the “not-a-kids” people out there.

Yes and…

The “yes, and…” rule of improv means you follow someone’s idea and then add something in a logical way. It works best when you’re not trying to be funny or clever. Keeping the scene going and making sense are the priorities.

When your child says you’re a princess, you can say, “Yes! Princess Delusia. I live in a castle in Birmingham and my superpowers are napping and braiding my hair.”

When she talks like a robot, you can respond by also beeping and booing and saying you need to find your charging station.

If he says there’s a cat living under the bed, you can say you’d like to meet her and give her some milk.

Following the “yes, and…” rule during playtime encourages creativity and keeps the game moving. It’s a roadmap for both parent and child to follow and a skill for both to practice. Two of my favorite parts about it are that I don’t have to plan and the imaginative play can go on indefinitely.

Even if my daughter says I’m dead, I can come back to life or become a ghost. “Yes, And…” means we can just keep riffing.

I spoke to improviser Marla Caceres while researching my book Theatrical improvisation, consciousness and cognitionand she told me a story about an adult using “Yes, and…” with her that I still remember as a kind of game to aspire to.

When Caceres was 4 or 5 years old, she and an adult were looking at an anthill. Caceres explains:

I was like, ‘Where do the ants go?’ And he says, ‘Oh, that’s where they live.’ And I said, ‘Oh really, do they have something like…’ He said, ‘That’s where they live. It’s like their house.” And I said something like, “And you have furniture in there?” And he says, “Yeah, they do.” (115)

Then Caceres’ game of “Yes, and…” ended abruptly as the adult walked away to talk to another adult, but it’s a great example of how simple and imaginative “Yes, and…” can be. Just join in, add and see what happens.

Imaginative and authentic gameplay

The beauty of improvisational parenting is that it helps us bring our authentic selves into every interaction, listening carefully and creating imaginative moments without the need for props.

“Yes, and…” has its limits. It’s great for riffs and can be a powerful tool for de-escalating tantrums, but it doesn’t mean you should say yes to everything kids say. If you want imaginative play to be more fun, try “Yes, and…”. When a child says they want to put their jacket on themselves, Yes, and… can help them test their own limits. If your teen says he wants to drop out of school, you can use “Yes, and…” to find out how he’s feeling instead of negating his reality by interrupting him and saying that’s not an option. “Yes, and…” can help you listen to your child, which can be a powerful negotiation tool. But when a baby demands to eat all the cookies or climb a cliff, a resounding, firm “no” will suffice. Boundaries are the fence that makes yard play safe.

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Sometimes real adult and child scenes are slow to get going, but they often end in laughter as we focus on and attack each other. If they don’t, we have something to talk about and practice. What can we do next time so we can both enjoy the game? Using the “Yes, and…” tool gives us something to practice on and a goal to achieve. How can this be fun for everyone? How can everyone’s ideas get some airtime?

“Yes, and…” gives us a language to connect playfully. And this language can even mean that we are basically all child people. At the very least, it should make imaginative play a little more palatable, a little more often.

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