Expert Opinion

Connecting with your child meaningfully through play

How would you rate your ability to connect with your child? Do you feel like you’re tracking along okay? I wonder what works (and what doesn’t) work for you. Interestingly, even within the same family, the parent-child relationship can differ between siblings, making it challenging for parents to find ways to connect meaningfully with all of their children, as they may need different strategies for each child.
Humans are hard-wired to connect with others, and this happens when we have a secure attachment with another person. In fact, over 50 years of research has been dedicated to analysing what a ‘secure’ parent-child attachment even is (rest assured, when we are talking about ‘attachment’, we are referring to the relationship between a parent and a child, not ‘attachment parenting’, which is something else entirely).
When a child connects meaningfully with their parent and a secure attachment is formed, research shows us that the child will experience more happiness and direct less anger to their parents. They’ll have better relationships with others all around (friendships, siblings, future romantic relationships, etc.) and they will also develop a positive attitude about themselves and their future. Secure kids develop the competence to solve problems independently, but also the confidence to ask for help when they need it.
So, it’s a pretty big responsibility being a parent and ensuring you have a secure and responsive relationship with your child, right?! Just a tiny bit overwhelming too…
While there’s a lot more to having a secure attachment with your child than sitting down with play doh, playing together is actually a really good way to connect meaningfully with your child in a proactive way.
However, I’m sure it won’t surprise you that many of the parents I’ve worked with over the past couple of decades have expressed reluctance to play with their child. Not because they don’t like spending time with their kiddo, but more often because they’re unsure how to actually play in a way that encourages meaningful connection. As a parent myself, I get it! It can be hard – and let’s not even get started on how being busy is yet another obstacle for making time to play with our kids! Fundamentally, parents often find it hard to play with their children because play lacks structure. We are accustomed to our structured lives and sitting down with a train set or Barbie doll seems to have no beginning or end and anything can happen (a parent’s worst nightmare)! Yet that’s the beauty of play for kids – when anything can happen, they get to be creative and they learn vital skills from this unstructured time.
So, we know that play is important for kids. And we know that connecting with our kids is important too. So how do we combine the two to connect meaningfully with our little ones through play? Having worked with hundreds of families over two decades, I’ve collated some tips that might just help you…

  • Start out by brainstorming activities that both you and your child enjoy – if you struggle with playing, you’ll find it easier engaging in something you enjoy yourself (but remember, your child needs to enjoy it too!). Make a list, and keep it somewhere so you can refer to it easily.
  • Allow your child to take the lead in play. Take off your ‘teaching’ hat and refrain from being directive and leading the play through telling them what to do. This is a chance for your child to be in control – let them enjoy that!
  • Where possible, engage in one of your child’s preferred activities. You can join them while they’re already playing, or you can set aside a time to play together.
  • Connecting meaningfully through play – or ‘cup filling’, requires your undivided attention – so put the phone away and give your child quality attention. Be present and engaged. Try to make it just the two of you.
  • If it helps either or both of you – use a timer to show how long you’ll be playing together. This can help increase the structure for those of us who like that, and it can also make the transition to finishing this fabulous one-on-one time with a parent that little bit easier.
  • Speaking of time, do what you can manage. Something is better than nothing!
  • Let yourself be creative and allow your child to see this part of you. Giving yourself permission to just ‘be’ in play allows you to enjoy this time judgement free – without worrying about looking silly (remember – kids LOVE silly)!
  • If you’re exhausted, try to find a way that you and your child can connect that isn’t too taxing on you. Or, find a way that you both find enjoyable (i.e. going for a walk and commenting on what you can see)
  • Remember that what your child finds valuable isn’t always what you think might be. They may value time sitting on the couch with you, just talking. Or lying on the floor colouring in together. You don’t need to plan extravagant activities – your child will get so much more from meaningfully connecting with you through play as they’ll have your undivided attention – and you’ll both be far more relaxed.
  • The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it!

  • Connecting meaningfully with your child is imperative for a healthy relationship between the two of you, as well as for your child’s future relationships with others. How you connect will change over time as your child develops, so keep up with their evolving interests and preferences to help maintain a healthy relationship as they grow. As always, seek help from a psychologist trained in attachment theory if you sense you need a little more support.

How to incorporate play-doh into playtime!
Meet Amanda Abel – a Paediatric Psychologist, mother and expert here at Nature One Dairy Australia. Amanda is a pro at all things parenthood, and is here to guide you through all the ups, downs and in-betweens.

Find out Amanda’s secret hack to helping calm your little ones, just by incorporating play-doh into their playtime!

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.