intentional play

Intentional Play: First Steps

Awhile back I asked my friend, Jennifer Bristow, to write a piece to teach me how to play with my kids without loosing my mind.  She was excited for the opportunity to share with us mommas her expertise in therapeutic play. Enjoy!

He called a child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 18:2-4.

By Guest Contributor: Jennifer Bristow 

What does that mean? What does becoming like a child look like? How do you get there? For today, become like a child- your child- by joining in their play.

Look, Mom! Hey Dad! Look at me! Watch! Did you see? How many times a day do you hear those words? Play is the language of children. Play is how children communicate their thoughts, needs, feelings and perceptions. When you play together, your children are communicating with you, and you have a unique opportunity to hear what their hearts are saying.

By being fully present with your child in play, you can give that needed attention on your terms, engage in a way that is meaningful, learn about your child, and give yourself to a moment of childlike engagement as well.

And hearing matters. Children desperately want to be heard, seen and valued. Children ask for our attention endlessly. And when we don’t look, see, watch…. They ask in other, sometimes negative, ways by yelling, fighting with siblings, jumping off furniture, or running in the grocery store.  Your child needs- and will have- your attention. Positive or negative, attention is attention….. Which is why, on your hardest, most hectic days when the to-do list is the longest and you most need your children to cooperate, they inevitably meltdown at the worst possible moment.

The good news is, play is the answer. By being fully present with your child in play, you can give that needed attention on your terms, engage in a way that is meaningful, learn about your child, and give yourself to a moment of childlike engagement as well. Did you just think “Great…. Another thing I don’t have time for… and can feel guilty about… Thanks for that.”?

Before you click away…. YOU CAN DO THIS.

1.) Try starting with five minutes. Commit yourself to being fully present with your child. Give them 100%. This is the hard part…. We don’t often do 100%. We do multi-tasking. We do cell phones. We do many things, and we do them all at once. We play, work and engage while we think, worry, and attend to other things. It’s our nature, and has been for thousands of years….  Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things…. For this moment, disconnect to reconnect. Put away your phone, turn off the tv, quiet the to-do list in your head.  Focus on the things that really matter. Focus on this moment of play. And if you don’t have five minutes, start with two. Do you have five minutes while the oven preheats? Or two minutes, after the clothes are in the dryer? The key here is to think small! intentional play

2.) Start your play with eye contact, touch, and playful presence. (For more on this, see Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline).  When it’s time to play, join your child where they are at, make eye contact and connect with a touch, whatever is most meaningful to your child (hug, handshake, touch on the back, fist bump…. anything that connects you). Get down on their level. The goal here is to be fully present and joined with your child. Having a bad day? Not feeling it?  Start by taking a deep breath, smiling and looking into your child’s eyes (It’s ok to fake it if you have to! Your mind will follow your body eventually).’

3.)Once you’re engaged and fully present, let go, and let your child be in charge. This is their language, not ours, so let them speak. Play along. Praise. Echo back their play. Focus on what you see and describe it. Avoid “do this” “try that” and “no”- try  “I see you, you built a bridge” “You drew with the yellow crayon” “You did it!” “I like the way you put that red block on top of the yellow block”.  While you’re there, focus on hearing, seeing and being with your child.  

And that’s it. It’s as little- and as big- as that. If it’s too much, scale back to a smaller bit of time until you find what works for you.  If it’s not enough, add more play-moments throughout the day. Make a commitment to finding a moment for pure play today. You can do it!


Jennifer is a licensed professional counselor at Joie Counseling Services in Tulsa, Ok. She enjoys working with children and families of all ages, with an emphasis on early childhood, trauma exposure and adoption/foster care concerns.

Feature Image- Photo Credit: Cavalier Photography

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