A family play football outside

Why play time can be great for the whole family

Last night, when I should’ve been loading the dishwasher and tidying up, I was instead hiding behind a door ready to pounce on my ten-year-old-son and blast him to smithereens! Don’t worry, no small children were harmed in the making of this feature – we were just playing laser tag.

The day before, we battled to become famous wizards, attempting to out-spell each other and earn pixie dust. The child beat both me and the husband in a game of bird taxis and crazy spells, but we all had a great laugh. (It’s called Wizards Wanted, if you wondered).

Playing together as a family is really important to us: So important in fact, that sometimes – shock, horror – I stop doing grown up things and just have a laugh.

This is not something that  started when my son was born. Even before he came along, I was always up for new fun experiences. I’ve done the Charleston with Jay Gatsby in an interactive play, got squatted with paint during Paintball games and been to a ball pit just for grown-ups!

Why is play so good for you?

I don’t need an expert to tell me that play is good for you! After our impromptu laser tag session, my son and I were not only out of breath, but laughing and joking with EACH OTHER. And when we played the wizarding board game, we were in fits trying to first work out the rules and then laughing at the stupid spells we had to perform. It bought us all together as a family, which with a husband who works shifts, is a pretty impossible task at times.

Don’t just take my word for it. Dr Amanda Gummer is the founder of The Good Play Guide, an organisation dedicating to helping children develop their skills through play.

On the website, she explains just why play is so important as a family, citing many reasons to give it a go.

“It opens the channels of communication” Dr Gummer explains on the site. “If your child is often distracted by the latest YouTube video, apps or even homework, play can be a great opportunity to catch up with them again.”

A family playing chess together

Other benefits include forming stronger family relationships, creating great memories, teaching them new skills, making them feel a valued part of the family and giving you some relaxation time.

You may wonder what’s relaxing about pretending to be a gazelle chased by a cheetah (a favourite game of one of my friend’s kids!) but I’ve found play-time to be relaxing because you switch off your grown-up brain for a bit. Whether it’s pretending to be a superhero or playing Scrabble, doing something out of the ordinary is good for your mental health.

When lockdown started, I suddenly found it really difficult to be frivolous and play with my son, but not only did our mental health suffer, so did our relationship. Once we got into our new lockdown groove however, we were able to get back to playing, whether that was video games or hiding in the woods and pretending to be spies. I realised how important it was for my son to have a play companion when he couldn’t see his friends, but also how important it was for us to have fun together.

In fact, a study by the University of Nebraska discovered that those families who play together, are stronger because of it. When they asked people what made a strong family, the same elements kept appearing, which included spending enjoyable time together, appreciating each other and positive communication, which humour and playfulness was listed as being the most important.

How to start playing as a family

You may be convinced that playing is great for your family, but if the last time you played a board game was in the ‘80s, you may need some advice to help you add some playfulness into your lives.

For many of us adults, play isn’t something that comes naturally anymore, and it can be a bit nerve-wracking to suddenly have to release our inner child. Dr Amanda Gummer’s advice to newbies on the play scene is to let your kids take charge!

“If you’re nervous about playing with your children – lots of parents worry they’ll get it ‘wrong’, just relax and let the kids lead,” she suggests.

“They spend such a lot of time being told what to do, it’s great for them to be in charge – they also get to practise their decision-making skills.”

She also says not to worry about getting things ‘wrong’ when you play – that’s all part of the process!

“If you make a mistake, remember, that’s all part of it too,” she advises.

“There’s a lot of pressure on people to be perfect and if your children see you mess up, laugh about it and put it right, you’re giving them permission to not be perfect too and a model to copy when they make mistakes.”

Here are a few other tips to help you start playing as a family:

Don’t think about it too much
I think the best advice I can give you is not to overthink it. If your kids are having fun, ask if you can join in. Suggest a board game. Do a silly dance. The other day in the paddling pool, my son and I had a great time trying to walk like crabs around the pool. Stupid, yes. Fun, yes. Bonding? Definitely!

Mum and child in a den

Schedule it in
If you don’t like going with the flow and are more of a planner, you can also schedule in ‘fun’. Week six of lockdown and my family were miserable. We’d miss out on a trip back home to Devon to see the family and we were just hating being indoors all the time. My son’s idea to cheer us all up? An ‘80s party!

It was a roaring success. We showed my son some of our favourite ‘80s videos, dressed in our finest ‘80s clothing and played some of my favourite party games from back in the day. The hit of the night was the chocolate game – a game I used to love playing with my extended family at parties.  We ended the night with an ‘80s inspired menu – arctic roll went down a treat with the 10-year-old and an ‘80s movie.

Having something to look forward together and plan as a family helped us bond so much. My son went to bed having had fun and me and my husband carried on the nostalgia, listening to some ‘80s vinyl after he went to bed. All in all, it was a great night!

Start small
I’m a frustrated actress, so when my son asks me to be a futuristic fighting fairy, I’m there with full character motivation and costume (dressing up is big in our family!). I appreciate though that not everyone is in touch with their inner child. Play is like any muscle, the more you use it, the more you get used to using it, however it’s fine to start small. Play a board game. Do a wordsearch. Complete a jigsaw. Play badminton.

I think even reading can be a fun, bonding experience. My son and I are currently working our way through the Artemis Fowl books and are both enjoying them in our different ways. I’ve also introduced him to my favourite childhood books including The Magic Faraway Tree and The Water Babies. My husband also dug out some old Beano annuals for him and we all had a good laugh at the exploits of Dennis the Menace!

Be in the moment
Ten minutes of intense, losing yourself in the moment play is worth a whole day of distracted interactions with your kids, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re not rolling down hills.

Dr Amanda’s advice is, regardless of how much time you play for, make sure you give your child your full attention.

She says: “Just make sure you are giving them your full attention, so put away the phone for a while and rediscover the joys of childhood with your kids.”

Go outside
We are so lucky to live near woodland – it has simply been our saviour during lockdown. There are days however when my son doesn’t want to walk the dog, but I’ve got a fool proof way to get him out now – walkie talkies! We play spies. He hides from me. The dog gets a walk. Win-win. 

We also love doing a bit of puddle jumping and playing football. I’ve been known to roll down a hill… I love the silliness of play and how it can make you feel so young sometimes, even if my neighbours do give me funny looks!

A son and dad playing video gamesStart a play list
Those days when everything is just a bit ‘bleurgh’ and my brain is fried, I go to my list. This is something I’ve been keeping for years now – every time I see a good idea online or on the TV, I jot it down. It goes on for three pages and includes links to do-it-yourself scavenger hunts, tips on how to build a den in the woods, various science experiments and several little ideas that can help alleviate boredom on trips (Thumb Wars is our favourite).

I also have a literal playlist – full of tunes, chosen by the whole family, that I can pop on anytime and make a move to. Our kitchen discos are legendary and yes, we may have three disco balls…

We also have a boredom box, which has unusual games we’ve found along our play journey – our favourite at the moment is Sussed, which is great to play with all ages – quiz books, balls, frisbies, wigs… Basically, it’s full of stuff that help us come up with ideas on what to play.

I believe we never truly grow up. There’s a fun side to everyone and during these bleak times, I think it’s never been more important than to try and access this. It doesn’t matter if your family have all grown up, try a virtual quiz or charades. Go for a walk in the rain. Walk some llamas (seriously, it’s a thing). Engage your inner child and you’ll be surprised at how much better you all feel!

For more ideas on how to play, visit Dr Amanda Gummer’s website, The Good Play Guide. On the August Bank Holiday weekend, they are running their second Play At Home Fest, providing two action-packed days of virtual family fun.

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