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Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD.

An Outline of the Book: Chapters 1-2

Disclaimer:     This summary was completed through the hard work and effort of parents associated with the online community of Baby Center’s  Attachment Parenting and Positive Parenting Boards. Mr. Cohen is aware of this summary, but did not do any of the summarizing himself.  He is, however, pleased that this project was started.  This outline is meant to be a companion to the book and not a substitution for it.  You would be doing yourself and the author a disservice to read this summary only without having read the real thing first.  We hope that this summary will serve as a tool to help you keep the ideas of Playful Parenting alive in your mind and in your homes. 

Chapter 1: The Value of Being a Playful Parent

Parents want to reconnect with their children, but often don't know how. Play helps to re-
establish a deep emotional bond between parent and child. Children use play to to
explore, to make sense of all their new experiences, and to recover from life's upsets. Playful Parenting fosters closeness, confidence and connection by allowing parents to enter the child's world on the child's own terms. "Playful Parenting can happen anywhere and anytime, not just during designated playtimes"(2).

However, playfulness doesn't come naturally to all parents. As adults, we don't have much room in our lives for fun and games. It can be especially difficult to make the transition from our stressful, serious daily grown-up activities to the child's world of play. While we might be willing to do what our children want, we get annoyed when their play doesn't follow our expectations or when they demand too much from us. We may also be unable to put aside our own competitiveness or our need to be in control and simply have fun.

 Why Children Play

All children have their own style of playing, but almost all children have an innate instinct for play. For children, play is like their job. It is their main way of communicating, experimenting, and learning. Experts often describe play as a place of magic and imagination, where children can fully be themselves.

While play is fun, it is also meaningful and complex. Humans learn new things about the world and themselves through discovery and practice, much of which happens through play. Play allows children to try out adult roles and skills. As they discover their world and what they are able to do in it, children develop a sense of confidence and mastery. Play can also be a way of connecting with others, and of reconnecting after closeness has been severed. Children also use play to recover from emotional distress. By recreating the upsetting scene, children can retell the story with themselves in charge. Finally, play is fun. "Spending time with children is supposed to be joyful"(7).

Fostering Closeness Instead of Isolation

Games based on the idea of closeness and distance, such as peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, and tag, are actually about connection. However, sometimes children are not able to connect or reconnect so easily. "They may be annoying, obnoxious, or downright infuriating as they try desperately to signal us that they need more connection. These situations call for creating more playtimes, not doling out punishment or leaving the lonely child all alone"(8). Parents most commonly respond to children's isolation with aggravation or worry. Playful Parenting provides the keys we need to help children out of their fortress of isolation.

Fostering Confidence Instead of Powerlessness

Self-determination is part of the power aspect of play. When children can do whatever they choose, they are more likely to do it enthusiastically. When children are frustrated too much or are unable to use play to master their world, they retreat into the tower of powerlessness. However, powerlessness is often expressed in some confusing ways, such as preemptive aggression. Engaging playfully with children helps them build the confidence they need to step out of their tower of powerlessness.

Fostering Emotional Recovery Instead of Emotional Distress

Children use play to recover from upsetting incidents. Play lets them recreate the incident, but this time letting the scary feelings out, usually through giggles. Role reversal lets the child be in the more powerful position.

Adults need to actively help children recover through play. Children who are not allowed to recover emotionally in a playful way may either try to feel better in less playful ways, or retreat into themselves and bury their feelings. When we see a child who is fearful, violent, or out of control, we usually just see the problem behavior, which angers or worries us so much that we don't think about using play to help solve it.

Children who feel isolated or powerless may:

* be unable to play happily
* resort to hiding or attacking or annoying you
* just go through the motions of life without any real joy or spark
* repeat the same words or games over and over without any fresh ideas and without having much fun
* play in a way that is wilder than usual, or more reckless

Parents may feel at a loss to help when their child is feeling isolated or powerless. They may feel helpless and rejected themselves, and may even retreat into their own towers of isolation and powerlessness. "Play is one of the best ways to engage with children, pulling them out of emotional shutdown or misbehavior, to a place of connection and confidence"(16).

Chapter 2:  Joining Children in Their World

Great play covers the three main purposes of play as well as just being fun.  It allows for connection, addresses power and confidence issues, and allows for the release of frustrations.  First and foremost great play is about joining children in their world, on their level in a way that is fun for them.  Playful parenting begins with an eagerness to connect with children and a willingness to provide children with unlimited refills of love encouragement, and enthusiasm.

Reentering a World We Once Knew

Children benefit and need time away from adults; we don’t have to move into their world.  But, to fulfill the promise of play, children need us to visit their world; to play with them some of the time.  This kind of play can be hard for adults at first, but it is a skill anyone can develop with practice and commitment.  Since children already use play to connect, to heal, and to develop confidence, it is a logical next step for adults to play with them to offer the helping hand they need.

Providing a Helping Hand

Play is children’s main way of communicating.  To leave children alone in their play is like spending the day with adults and never talking to them.  The adult role in play can be quite minimal-just making sure of basic safety and being there if needed.  This role may feel unimportant, but it does make a difference if it is you that is there.  Children need adults with whom they are closest to be nearby some of the time, even when they don’t need much from us.  An example of this type of play is the play interlude in which a parent may look up from their chores to wave goodbye or otherwise participate momentarily in their child’s play.

Children and adults use play naturally to connect, build confidence, and to heal from emotional distress.  But, meaningful play may need more active involvement from the grown ups:

  1. when children are having a difficult time connecting with peers or adults.
  2. when children seem unable to play freely and spontaneously.
  3. when things are changing in their life.
  4. when they are in danger.


When Children are Having a Difficult Time Connecting with Peers and Adults

Aggressive behavior is one sign that children are having trouble connecting with those around them.  When children are being overly and consistently aggressive with peers special playtime with parents in which physical contact is encouraged can help.  You can wrestle, have pillow fights, give piggy back rides, as well as give more hugs and cuddling.  If the child starts to behave aggressively, take a break to calm down and then go back to playing.

Sitting (unhappily) off alone is another sign that a child is having trouble connecting.   These children need adults to make an extra effort at playfulness, designed to lure them out of their isolation and into contact.  This infusion of love, affection and attention will help them to enter into peer play with confidence.

When children are having trouble connecting, they need a parent to help them out of their isolation.  Instead, children are often punished or ignored when they are already feeling excluded and lonely.  Sitting alone in ones room is not the best way to develop better ways to play with friends.

When Children Seem Unable to Play Freely and Spontaneously

When asked, teachers describe “good” play as: fluid, creative, imaginative, fun adaptive inclusive of others, and cooperative.  Children need minimal input from adults during this type of play.  Teachers described “problem” play as repetitive, stuck, aggressive, destructive, boring, or exclusive of others.  With this type of play children need adults to provide more structure, information, redirection, enthusiasm, fresh ideas, calming, extra attention, guidelines and limits, and help in verbalizing their behaviors and feelings (say it in words).  Some children seem to know all they need to know about play.  Others need specific lessons in rules skills and sportsmanship.  Teaching these lessons is another obvious role for adults.

When Things are Changing in Children’s Lives

Cohen gives the example of a mom of three who has just had a new baby playing a game with her two older children in which she would fill them up with love and then break the imaginary “love egg” over their heads.  This little game helped her older children to still feel connected to her while she devoted time to caring for the new baby.

When Children are in Danger

There are times when it is dangerous to let children work things out on their own.  When children have bad experiences or feelings and no where to go with them they can end up acting those feelings out others.  These children need play experiences that will interrupt and rechannel their aggressive impulses.  Other children respond to bad experiences and feeling by becoming timid and fearful.  These children need play experiences that will help then to be more assertive and to trust the world enough to come out of their towers of isolations and powerlessness.  Children’s difficulties do not always sort themselves out if the children are left alone, as much as busy parents and teachers wish they would.

The Importance of Getting Down on the Floor 

Getting down on the floor can mean literally getting down on the floor, right where your children like to play.  Other times we get on the floor metaphorically by doing what our children like to do.  Getting on the floor also means joining in play that we would rather ignore or eliminate.  Repetitive play does not change as long as it is played in isolation.  Children need out approval and enthusiasm first, before they can get out of a rut and move on the “better” play.  So even if the goal is to stop a certain type of play, the only effective way is to join the play for a while which can give children the space to change.

When we constantly tell children what they should and should not do they have no room to think for themselves and are forced to choose between resentful obedience and defiant rebellion. 

Why it’s Hard for Adults to Play

Adults have lost much of our ability to play through lack of practice, and through adult preoccupation and worries – and this loss gets in our way of being with children.   We have to take the initiative in reconnecting, instead of waiting for our children or giving up.  Unfortunately, the times when children most need us to play with them tend to be those times when we have the most difficulties in playing with our children.  (See List on Page 1).  Just when our children need us most, when they act up and misbehave and call us names and so on - we get angry and punish them or feel hurt and block them out.  Children need us to make a big effort to overcome our negative feelings to play the games they want to play the way they want to play them.

I Call it Fathering

The nurturing abilities of fathers are seldom acknowledged and even more rarely encouraged.  Fathers often feel marginalized within families, pushed out of the center of family life – assigned by themselves of somebody else to a narrow range of roles that might or might not include play.

One of the best developments in the last ten years or so is the greater participation of fathers in the nuts and bolts of childcare.  The tendency of mothers to perform most of the daily parenting alone is not only an unfair burden on women; it is also a disaster for men to be left out of the loop of day-to-day parenting.  Real parenting takes a commitment to the everydayness of parenting.

Fathers have always been children’s main playmates for rough and tumble play.  This play has over and over been found to be good for children as long as it is not too rough.  But, fathers and children need the ordinary, everyday interactions too.  Children need for men to expand their repertoires; to cuddle, comfort, and play dress up.  Distance is what boys and men struggle against.  As more and more men closeness over distance, fathering won’t have to be separate section in parenting books.

A Special Note About Nonparents

Nonparents play a unique role in the lives of children.  Parents and children often get stuck at am impasse which makes playtime less than fun.  Other adults can often intervene to unstuck the play and get things going again.  Nonparents may offer different kinds of play that parents are not comfortable with, such as play that is messy or rowdy.  Nonparents, even if they are recognized as adults can be accepted as one of the gang in a way that parents cannot.  And children benefit from a thoughtful, respectful adult who can be seen as an ally rather than an enemy.

Tuning in to Your Child

When tuning in, the first thing to notice is “What do children need?”  Is it food, a break, attention?  I’m always amazed when adults say “He just did that for attention.”  Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it.  Why not just give it to them?  For playful parenting purposes it is especially useful to translate whatever you hear into the language of closeness and isolation, confidence and powerlessness.

Tuning in does not mean questioning our children about every detail of their lives.  Another mistake is cutting them off when they are talking about “unimportant” things, or when they are chattering away about nothing, or when they are repeating themselves.  We have to listen to their way of telling things, even if it excruciatingly dull to us, if we want them to get around to telling the good stuff.  Understandably they want to know that we are really listening and aren’t going to interrupt them or scold them, before they are going to share anything important with us.

Human connections are always changing, flowing from connection to disconnection, to reconnection.  Playful parenting can be a guide through these rapid changes.  When we join children in their world of play, we unlock the door to their inner lives and meet them heart to heart.


Printable Version (MS Word - 39 pages - 194kb)

Playful Parenting 1 - Chapters 1-2

Playful Parenting 2 - Chapters 3-4

Playful Parenting 3 - Chapters 5-6

Playful Parenting 4 - Chapters 7-8

Playful Parenting 5 - Chapters 9-12

Playful Parenting 6 - Chapters 13-15

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