How to play

Giraffe eating a dinosaur

Puppets are a great way to stimulate pretend play, pop over here to have a look at some of the puppets stocked by Fun Junction.

This sounds like a bit of a ridiculous question but can you remember how to play? Strange as it sounds I’ve heard of adults who have genuinely lost the ability and there also seem to be a great number of parents who struggle with certain types of play. One of the key difficulties seems to arise during what we might call ‘pretend play’. The primary worry I hear is that there is a feeling of obligation that you, as the parent, will be expected to plan out a whole story and create a host of characters out of the toy figures in front of you. This is an intimidating prospect, especially where playtime comes at the end of the day when your mind is dulled after a day at work, or a day filled with housework and running the kids around to meet their busy social calendar (our kids always seem to have better social lives than we do).

Fortunately this isn’t really what’s involved in pretend play. I’m sure your kids would love it if you mapped out a whole story for them and then played it out before their eyes with a vibrant array of exceptionally voiced characters (who wouldn’t?!). To be honest though, that’s not playing, that’s more like a high-end puppet show. Scale it back, and remember how you used to play, but if that fails here are some tips:

  • Go to my previous post ‘5 hints for telling a good story‘ some of this is specific to reading but the explanations of how to change your voice and animate character traits should be useful.
  • If you genuinely struggle with pretend play then DON’T, and I’ll repeat DON’T, use a character they know from TV/films. Doing this will result in one of two things: EITHER you’ll crack it and perform that character flawlessly (or at least well enough for your kid to be happy with it) OR you’ll be terrible and your kid will just laugh at your attempts, disrupting play and bruising your confidence. If you crack it then there’s a strong chance that that is the only character your child will let you play as and this will get tedious fast (this character could also become a crutch, limiting you from enjoying all the fun that pretend play has to offer). Neither of these outcomes is particularly great.
  • Pick one or two character toys to play with and give them a character ‘quirk’. Don’t make them a ‘baddie’ or a ‘goodie’, of course that’s what kids often do but as an adult you can bring something different into the mix. Here’s an example, try a character who thinks everything they are presented with is edible. Your child will likely find it hilarious as they chase after the character trying to explain that they shouldn’t eat a cushion/a sock/ the TV/ someone’s hair.
  • Allow your character to develop. Even if you’re only playing for ten minutes or so you’ll find an easy ‘plot point’ in allowing your character to change their mind about something. If you need it, the development can be also used as a means of setting a time limit. Using the example above, the character could come to realise that not everything is edible as dinner time approaches (‘OK, OK, so I can’t eat your shoe but can I eat whatever it is that’s making that lovely smell?’ ‘Yes, that’s dinner!’ ‘Great let’s eat dinner!’).
  • Finally have fun, have as much fun as you can. They’ll only be playing like this for so long. Also, to keep things interesting, try occasionally throwing in some behaviour that breaks the status quo, this should help your child to think on their feet and it can lead to much more entertaining playtimes as well.

I’m always interested to hear how other parents play so feel free to pop a comment below and tell me about your own experiences. Hope these wee tips help someone out there. As always, thanks for reading and if there’s anything else you’d like me to post about please get in touch, Cheers, John


5 comments on “How to play

  1. […] light of my previous posts ‘How to play‘ and ‘5 Hints for Telling a Good Story‘ I thought I might go through some of my […]


  2. […] takes a bit of help (both from more active parental involvement and more dynamic play objects). As I’ve pointed out before sometimes playing with your kids can expose them to ideas about the world, and about people, that […]


  3. […] and in the mean time feel free to check out some toy related posts I prepared earlier ‘How to Play‘, ‘Why are dinosaurs so universal?‘, or my first ever post which was about my […]


  4. desertmum says:

    Love this! I especially love the idea of assigning characteristics to different toys/characters in the play, rather than just the inevitable goodie/baddie. I’ll try that next time, as my kids are very much both into goodies and baddies at the moment, the younger one definitely following the older one and his superhero interests! I enjoy play a lot more when I let my kids lead me – yes it’s bizarre and confusing, as my (slightly tongue-in-cheek!) post described, but I find that a whole load easier (and better for their development) than trying to come up with new scenarios and things to do. The kids are much better than that, and sometimes what they say then inspires me to add something to the play anyway. The main thing I’ve learned is that imaginative/pretend play takes TIME. We have great play times like this when we’re not rushing around, doing jobs or whatever. It’s so easy to keep remembering ‘quick’ things that need to be done, and getting up to do them, but for me I really need to put my phone in a different room, allow a good length of time, and just enjoy!


    • So sorry Lucy, just found this comment hiding away in my dashboard notifications, didn’t mean to take so long to reply. You are totally right about time, if I have things to do or if it’s getting close to the kids’ bed-time it’s not very easy to jump into imaginative play. My wife and I aren’t always home at the same time (she works evenings) so it can be difficult sometimes to keep up with housework etc. and find time for pretend play with the boys. We somehow make it work though.

      As for play content, I agree that standing back and going along with them is often the best way to go but I can’t help using characters as a way of introducing my kids to new social situations and moral questions. It’s a kind of light-hearted means of touching on some very deep issues sometimes. I can see why some therapists use play as therapy even for adults, the stories come from so deep in our subconscious that we sometimes surprise ourselves.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment and again, I’m so sorry it took so long for me to reply, all the best, John 🙂


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