I Suck at Playing: Tips to Enjoy Playtime with Kids

playing with kids

I haven’t been a mom very long; less than five years. And in that time I’ve learned I’m good at a few parenting things I didn’t expect:

I’m excellent at keeping calm during severe weather.

I can mentally keep track of each child’s medical history.

And, I can magically chase away the hurt of an owie with a hug and a kiss (I hear most moms can do this last one, but still, I was impressed I could do it, too).

But none of us can be good at everything, and I have discovered one parenting skill I don’t possess.

I really suck at playing. 

There is a very specific kind of playing I struggle with: the non-specific kind. The kind that little kids do — with no structure, rhyme, or reason.

Which is sad, because regular ol’ playing is really good for kids. I know that. But I just do not have this skill. As a mom, I find myself present and wanting to play in the beginning, but I struggle to stay present when there isn’t structure in play.

For example, I have a hard time when my child wants me to endlessly push a car around the floor. When we aren’t even racing or interacting, but I’m supposed to push this car around, forever. Really. I asked him once and he said I was supposed to do that, forever. 

I can only do this type of play for so long before I find myself wandering away to clean something, or reaching for my phone to do some mindless scrolling.

And that’s the opposite of what I actually want to do. My desire is to be present and interact with my kids in a positive way. And so I have developed a few ways to stay engaged when playing with kids. 

Tips for Playing 

Use a timer.

When unstructured play is requested, I agree, but time box it. I explain to my kiddo I will play this way for X amount of time and set a timer. From the beginning, he knows when the timer goes off, we need to pick something else.

Even if we move to more unstructured play of a different kind, I can stay engaged because it is different. Sure, sometimes there’s a small protest when time’s up, but that’s another life lesson learned, too.

Change the scenery.

Mixing up your surroundings can help with the monotony of unstructured play. I find an unstructured walk much more endurable than some kinds of unstructured play. We have great spontaneous conversations and try all sorts of silly play when we go for walks with no expectations.

In the summer, my favorite place for unstructured play is the plastic baby pool in the backyard. I can stay engaged with all sorts of imaginative play while soaking in the sun, staying cool in the water, maybe enjoying a cold beverage, and overall relishing a no-pressure play situation.

Choose activities with a clear start and end.

At playtime, I often present my kiddo with options that are structured and let them choose. Meaning, I will suggest we do a puzzle together. Or, I suggest we play a game. Even if we end up playing Candy Land 17 times in a row, I am more able to stay focused when there is an end in sight.

Use your imagination and get creative!

My son went through a phase when he was really into trains. He wanted to build the track and just push trains around all day. This meant he wanted me to crawl around along with him, driving around little trains. That got old really quickly — especially for my knees!

But since I knew the phase was adorable and great for his development, I really wanted to find a way to stay engaged. So instead of checking out, I found a way to entertain myself as well.

First, we made a zoo around the train tracks and I narrated zoo tours as we pushed the trains around the track. After we demolished our zoo, we used blocks and built all sorts of elaborate tunnels. When that lost its spark, we set up a town around the tracks and went on special missions to deliver supplies to different parts of town.

I think you get the idea. Getting involved and using my imagination helps me turn unstructured play into something I can stay focused on, which helps me stay present.

No parent is perfect at every parenting thing. I have found that knowing who I am, and what works for me as a parent, makes me a better one.

I bet that if you care about being a good parent, you are probably already well on your way to being one. It’s ok if you probably suck at some parenting thing (or two, or five, or more). It’s all about making and effort and how we find ways to be good parents.

For more ideas on playing with kids, see Simple Indoor Activities to Keep Kids Busy.
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After meeting here during college, Caitlin and her husband, Tanner, settled in North Fargo and live a pretty upper-midwestern life full of trying to appreciate the small adventures. As a mom to a son born in 2017 and a daughter born in 2021, Caitlin tries to balance all of the mommy things with taking time for what makes her a human outside of being a wife and mother. Along with spending her days working as a program manager, she enjoys finding unique family experiences in the Fargo-Moorhead area, volunteering, reading, and simply being honest about the realities of motherhood in all its vehement glory.


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