When I was researching my new book "The Secret of Play: How to Raise Smart, Healthy, Caring Kids from Birth to Age 12," I learned that, when children dash and splash and squish and build and pretend their way through their early years, they're doing much more than letting off steam or burning calories.
Play boosts the circuits in young children's brains, impacting every aspect of their development: cognitive, emotional, physical. Underlying "The Secret of Play" are some guiding principles about play, secrets that can really make a difference in your family's quality of life.
Play first, not last. Every family has those busy times in their days. For most of us, it's the "witching hour" between dinner and bedtime, when the kids are screaming and everyone is hungry. There are chores to do and bills to pay -- so we tell the kids that we'll play later. But the evening will go a lot more smoothly if you put the chores and meal prep aside and play with your kids for 15 minutes. After all, a lot of whining and complaining is about wanting to connect (and negative attention is better than no attention). So, when you snuggle on the couch or shoot hoops in the backyard or play a game of cards, you grease the wheels for the "chores" to come.
Be fully present. It's very easy to check your Blackberry or go through the mail while you sit down to a board game with your kids. But imagine how rude it would be if, during lunch with a friend, she suddenly took a call from someone else or started reading her mail. It's much better to give your kids 15 minutes of uninterrupted, totally focused playtime than an hour of distracted play.
Keep toys simple. This is a secret of play that we often forget because our kids are so tech savvy. But the best toys are those that challenge kids to use their imaginations, that engage all their senses. Many of the toys with lots of bells and whistles do all the work for the kids. Simple, classic toys not only last longer, but they often grow with your child -- a much better deal than the expensive high-tech toy that's "hot" this year.
Boredom is good. When your child complains "There's nothing to do," don't rush to turn on the tube or suggest a video game. Provide open-ended toys, like art supplies or dress-up clothes or building blocks, and challenge your child to "figure something out." If it's really hard for them to play alone, undirected by Mom or Dad, set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes. Better yet, encourage them to daydream, to let their thoughts wander. Some of our most creative thinking happens when we're "bored."
The same goes for frustration, which is actually beneficial for kids. The child whose block tower tumbles down every time he puts that long block on top will learn quickly to try a smaller one. So, resist the temptation to helicopter in to "save" the day by turning the puzzle piece around the right way. We know from extensive research that kids who learn to muscle through frustrating times do better down the road in school and in their relationships.