Play for Parents Who Don’t Play

I recently joked to a former early ed colleague that being a teacher only helped me about 7% in parenting. This is a slight exaggeration, but it’s rooted in truth. One can have a great foundation in child development, pedagogy, and even performing arts (check, check, check), and a decade of practical experience (check) and still find it hard to want to sit on the floor playing and making googly faces.

That being said, I love playing – my own way. Making one distinction has freed me from feeling forced to sing hackneyed songs:

There is a huge difference between “teacher play” (scaffolding, modeling, observation) vs. “parent play” (whatever your hearts desire).

I was putting pressure on myself. But what about parents and caregivers who are not teachers? That’s most of you. Here are some rules from the Parents Who Don’t Play Playbook.

  • You do you. Make it yours. Give yourself grace and permission to trust your intuition. Your child needs you as your authentic self.
  • Do what you love – what you love will shine through and spark wonder and delight in your little one. Children can discern when we’re genuinely interested in something and when we’re faking it. They much prefer(and learn more from) a parent who is psyched about blocks for a month over one who is pretending to enjoy Pinterest-perfect art projects.
  • Make a plan. If you’re uninspired on the spot, plan for the week. Organize a few favorite activities by gathering supplies ahead of time, having instructions/recipes on hand, and separate each activity into its own bag, box, etc. Ready to grab and ready to go.
  • Let your child take the lead. Child-led play is based in each child’s interests. Stuck for ideas? Need to catch up on some work? When children lead play, they may remain engaged for longer periods. You may be able to sneak away from a reading toddler for a few minutes to check email!
  • Be ready to toss the plan – Kiddos have their own agendas, moods, and attention spans. Your plan may not align with their needs in the moment. Be prepared to abandon ship or skip starting altogether.
  • Repeat the plan as often as you and your kiddos like. Children learn through repetition and they love doing what they love. Give yourself permission to offer the same toys, activities, songs, books, games, and even your own shticks on repeat. In my classroom, an art project would evolve over the week and some books would be expanded into multidisciplinary themes over a few weeks.
  • Learn something new together. What would you like to try? Let yourself be new at something and model all that comes with it – including tackling frustrations and disappointments.
  • Check out teaching resources (vs. parent resources). Seeing play through the lens of education and development may provide you with new insight and inspiration. Also, talk to your child’s teachers. They may have some anecdotes about what your child prefers at school that you can carry over at home.
  • Let the environment be teacher and parent with you. Daily routines, the items in your home, your yard, your neighborhood, etc. Take a look around. Light and shadow/reflection play on the panes of a french door or a scavenger hunt for familiar items in your community can be tailored to your kiddo’s age.
  • Process over product. This applies to more than just art. Forget social media photos and trying to step it up for play dates. Let living and being with your child(ren) be enough.

Where Do You Feel a Spark?

Some broad categories to spark some inspiration.

STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math)


Imaginative Play

Cooperative Games

Creative Movement


The Kitchen


Daily Life

Young children benefit greatly from engaging involvement in daily life tasks. My 14 month old loves the vacuum, checking the mail, and feeding the cat. She does not miss if anything is different or out of place in our home. Daily routines are full of opportunities for learning – language acquisition and vocabulary in particular. Talking, talking, talking, about all that you do keeps the gears turning in your little one’s head. The words that you make and their context provide a rich foundation for incidental learning.