Do Something Actually Fun With Your Kids

Illustration for article titled Do Something Actually Fun With Your Kids

Photo: Joel Cunningham

Happier WeekHappier WeekIt can be hard to be truly happy lately, so we’re bringing you tiny hacks and simple pleasures to make your days brighter. This week, we’re all about being just a little happier.

Every morning I awaken to the same question: “Daddy, will you play with me?” (I mean “awaken to” to be taken literally here; usually this question is posed loudly to me by a three-year-old hovering several inches away from my sleeping face.) And, though I am not proud to admit it, my answer to this question is always secretly an emphatic no, even when I say yes. Because playing with little kids is actually kind of terrible. But what if it wasn’t?

Yesterday I wrote about the benefits of mindfulness—of consciously noting when you are feeling happy. But I can honestly say that few of my happy moments come when I am engaging in imaginative play with my kids. As an adult distracted by dozens of daily concerns and responsibilities, I find it massively difficult to shut off my brain and meet my kids on their level, especially when doing so means building “presents” out of Magna-Tiles and pretending to be surprised the 30th consecutive time there turns out to be toy cars inside of them.

In an essay for Slate, writer Rebecca Onion unpacks the history of expectations around adult/child play, noting that it is only in the last century or so that families in the developed world have had the luxury of ample time for recreation; before that, “most American children had work to do in the home—and so did their parents.” And even then, the idea that parents should actively engage in play with their kids is a yet more modern American invention, birthed in the post-WWII Baby Boom era, Onion says. The expectation that parents should be “caretaker, educator, and entertainer rolled into one is not only historically, but also culturally specific,” she notes.

Lots of parents struggle to play with their kids, and it’s probably because we aren’t built for it. Imaginative play carries many benefits for growing brains; through it, children develop an understanding of how to exist in a confusing world. But parents have already learned these basic life skills, and walking through them again—perhaps dozens of times in a row, and woe to the dad who doesn’t play the game the exact right way every time—is, well, boring. Especially when we could look at our phones instead.

But distractedly playing with your kids while reading Twitter is also bad news, as anyone who has ever been lectured by an 8-year-old about their screen time habits can confirm. It becomes doubly frustrating: The kids can tell you are half-ignoring them, and you start to resent them for interrupting the flow of that article you’re trying to read. (You’ll also look like a big hypocrite if you are actively texting while telling them screens are done for the day.)

Yes, you do probably need to play with your kids at least a little bit, especially this summer, while camps are closed (the sensible ones, anyway) and you’re steering clear of overcrowded parks and beaches. So here’s my playtime happiness hack, which I discovered via our recent purchase of a big (and cheap!) batch of colorful air-dry clay: Instead of struggling to insert yourself into your child’s incomprehensible games, find something that you both like to do, and do it together.

Let me tell you, we have been getting a lot of mileage out of that $15 worth of clay, and the whole family has been having a blast—3-year-old, 8-year-old and adults included. We’ve spent hours at the dining table crafting our own creations (or just mixing as many colors together as possible, in the youngest sculptor’s case), taking turns requesting songs from the smart speaker and chatting about the day’s non-events (which usually involves a precise recitation of the plot of a TV show I have never seen). The activity is fun for the kids and engaging (and soothing) enough that we adults benefit from the experience, too. After an hour of painstakingly attempting to recreate Super Mario characters in three slightly sticky dimensions, I feel relaxed rather than distracted and agitated. And we have no problem keeping the phones out of view.

Your co-play activity doesn’t have to involve clay (though I certainly can’t think of anything better). Your kids might prefer working on a “grownup” puzzle with you, or drawing, or even something physical like playing catch. What matters is that whatever you are taking time out of your day to do with them, it is an activity you can participate in with enthusiasm. Leave the kids to their solo imaginative play, and get yourself some air-dry clay.

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