Four fun ways to practice playful parenting

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by Megan Tietz

Megan Tietz wants you to join her on the front porch for some long talks and iced tea. She lives in the heart of Oklahoma City with her husband, two daughters, and twin sons. Catch up with her at Sorta Crunchy and join the conversation in her Facebook community.

It is summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . . until you and your children hit that summer wall. You’ve exhausted your list of “fun stuff to fill the time,” the much-anticipated excursions are now just sweet memories, and the lack of rhythm and routine finally just catches up with everyone.

I don’t know if this is how the waning weeks of summer looks for your family, but to be very honest, we have been struggling lately. I have had to reach deep into my parenting toolbox to come up with effective, practical, and positive ways to maintain a somewhat peaceful home.

Although I have not read Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting, I have gleaned enough of the basic premise to cobble together a few ways of keeping the mood light when storm clouds start to gather in the eyes of my daughters.

Because I want to do more than just endure these last days of summer, I’ve been extremely open to any approach to parenting that allows me to enjoy my children – even if I have to act really silly in the process!

1. Start the Day with Play


Photo by dariuszka

This sounds too simple to be effective, but I can testify to the fact that it really does work!  For the past few weeks, I’ve been starting the day by taking the girls outside and playing with them. We run in the grass, we dig in the dirt, we color the sidewalks with chalk, and then we head inside for baths, ready to start the day.

I have noticed a considerable reduction in the whining and clinginess since we started this new routine.  In fact, the girls seem much more interested in playing with each other (instead of fighting) and entertaining themselves when we have started our day with free play.  And notably, the days we skip morning playtime have a tendency to not turn out quite so well.

2. Insta-Puppet

In her books on childhood, author Susan Linn writes on the amazing way children respond to puppets.  Both of my girls adore puppets and this can make for wonderful distraction and redirection – if you have a puppet nearby. 

I have found that I can simply transform my plain old boring hand into a puppet character who can swoop in and intervene whenever she is called upon.

For some reason, a silly voice and a hand that talks is goofy enough to get my children to smile just a little bit.  More often than not, that little smile and that momentary break from the intensity of the situation are just what my child needs to relax and reframe the situation that had been so upsetting.

3. Shake It Out


Photo by Ctd 2005

This has been a lifesaver for the past few days. When mean words start flying, I find the grouchy child and say, “Oh no! Listen to those Meanies coming out of you. Let’s just shake them all out right now!” Then I scoop her up in my arms, flip her upside down, and shake the crankies away. Neither of my girls can resist it – they both erupt into laughter, and usually the one who wasn’t even being a Meanie wants a good upside-down shaking, too!

4. The “Cereal Trick”

In their book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish describe an approach to help kids get unstuck from something upsetting. 

In the illustration, a toddler asks his mother for a certain kind of cereal, a cereal that they don’t have in the house.  Instead of arguing back and forth over the cereal, the mom tells her little one, “I wish I had the magic power to make a giant box appear!”  The authors write, “Sometimes just having someone understand how much you want something makes the reality easier to bear.”

I like to take this technique and run with it.  For example, one day our two-year-old was angry and pouting over not being able to go to the zoo that day.  Instead of trying to explain how it was too hot and the animals wouldn’t be out and we would all be cranky and disappointed, I said, “I wish we had a zoo right in our backyard.  Wouldn’t that be so cool?  What animals would you like to have in a backyard zoo?  Oh yes, definitely crocodiles.  How about giraffes?  Yes, and hippos, too!  Hey, let’s draw a picture of our backyard zoo!”

At almost three, she doesn’t have the skill or attention span to create an elaborate depiction of her fantasy zoo, but playfully creating a fantasy seems help smooth over the feelings of frustration and disappointment that are often the source of unpleasant behaviors.

Sometimes as grown-ups, we feel just a little too grown up to indulge in playful parenting.  Give it a try — I think both you and your children will be surprised at the difference it makes in the mood in your home.

For further reading:

The Parent Vortex: Review of Playful Parenting
The Organic Sister: Playful Parenting, My Thoughts
Totally Smitten Mama: Don’t Smile

Have you tried some playful parenting? My suggestions might work best for the five-and-under crowd, so I would be so interested to hear how playful parenting has worked for older children. For parents of children in all age groups – what are your best solutions for keeping the atmosphere in your home peaceful and enjoyable?

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Comments

  1. Great tips, thank you! I’ve been needing this, and hope to start putting some of these into practice first thing tomorrow. Forget about all the ‘things’ that need doing after breakfast – if it’s not raining we are heading outside!

    • My youngest daughter is under the weather, so we ended up just playing inside this morning. We played a game of “monkey family” for quite a while, and it even lifted the sick chick’s spirits! I find that about a half an hour of morning play (inside or out!) makes for MUCH easier days for us.

  2. avatar
    Jean-Marie says:

    Perfect timing for this! Great ideas! I can’t wait to try shaking the crankies/meanies/mopies out of my kids tomorrow. And your post inspired me to plan on pulling out all of our stuffed animals so maybe we can set up our own pretend zoo this week. It is 90+ degrees here in S Florida so I’m struggling to find cool, indoor, affordable ways to play. We can get a little stir crazy by the end of the day.

  3. Oh my, how I wish I had read this earlier today. Today (and yesterday) has been a struggle in our household. I don’t know if it’s the full moon, but I have been a bad parent to bad children… all 3 of us (I have 2 girls ages 7 and 4) have been at our wits end… me yelling and screaming, them screaming/whining/misbehaving… I didn’t know what to do. I cried today, in front of them because I had had enough and just didn’t know what to do with them… or myself. Thanks for this post!

    • I can completely empathize with this. We have had MANY bad days this summer. My oldest is at that “half birthday” point of disequilibrium and we have had many tears (theirs and mine).

      Here’s to grace for the mamas and a better day tomorrow!

  4. What a great post and great reminder about how simple it can be to stave away the “i’m bored” routine!

  5. Thx Megan, I agree it’s not always easy to fight boredom and keep your kids entertained. Most of the time we resort to (expensive) family outings, while a shift in mindset and some creativity can go a long way. What I really like the most is ‘start the day with play’. Why? Because it’s not only beneficial to your kid, but it’s a great way to get going and start your day with more energy yourself. Btw, it struck me that in general it seems dads have less problems unleashing their inner child and doing silly. Do you agree?

    • Yes, my husband can get QUITE silly with the girls. I think it’s because we get so used to being in “Mom Mode” – enforcing boundaries, providing correction, all of that – that we forget that’s okay to smile and laugh and crack up.

  6. this works for older kids too, except with my 14yr old son we dont dig dirt or shake alot, we get up early and do a jog before school/work etc. its a great time to wake up together. Working and sports practice was really making me miss my time with my kids, this helps us both with much needed time together and energy :)

    • My husband and I are both joggers and I am so looking forward to family runs when the kids are older! Thanks for sharing this look at parenting an older child.

  7. Great tips, Megan! I have always found that silly is best – it does wonders for everyone’s spirits – mom included.

  8. Thanks for reminding me to get silly and have more fun!
    I remember the first time I used some suggestions from Faber & Mazlish’s book and it worked – delightful! (They wrote another excellent book “Siblings without Rivalry” – excellent!)

    • “Siblings Without Rivalry” is on my (very long) list of books I want to read! “How To Talk” has changed the way I communicate with my girls in very wonderful ways. It’s also helped me communicate with my husband and friends better, too!

  9. Love this approach. It’s amazing how playful times can be the best bonding times, but yet I sometimes forget to let lose during stressful times. Thanks for the reminder.

    • You have to sorta flip a switch mentally to recognize that when things get tense, it’s really the perfect time to get silly. It’s taken me pretty much all summer to learn that simple concept!

  10. Thanks for the tips~ I have two girls, 7 and 8. Better to try these tips first tomorrow.
    Bet will work! Always think “Do I need to do more? Did I do things too much?” Two kids always make me think somethings. Your tips make me very optimistic for my future with them. :)

  11. Love, love, love this! Fantastic ideas…can’t wait to use them.

  12. Such a good post to read this morning. We have definitely hit our summer wall. My oldest daughter is bored to tears, especially now that I’ve unplugged our t.v. for a week. It has been so hot that all of our outdoor activities have ceased and we’ve been lounging around the house. We need a little pick me up. Thanks!

    • I have to confess that we have spent some hot summer afternoons lounging in front of the TV! Thankfully it has cooled off (a tiny bit) for a few days, so we aren’t relying on that crutch quite so much.

      Summer boredom is always a good sign that the season is drawing to a close!

  13. Thank you for this! We have also been struggling during these last few weeks before school starts. Some days seem very long! I think these tips can help!

  14. Great ideas! It is good to be reminded to be a little silly and have fun with our kids (and in life in general).

  15. I am totally in need of these tips at the moment!! Since Nate is used to being at daycare I am finding it tough to entertain him all day long and really really wish he could entertain himself a little more readily :-) I do find that when I help get him started in the right direction, he does quite well…I’ll keep some of these pointers in mind over the coming weeks! Thanks as always Megan!

    • Those are hard days before the siblings can really play together. It has been so incredibly wonderful now that the girls are old enough to play together. There is plenty of squabbling, but lots of sweetness, too.

      I hope these ideas will be helpful for you!

  16. You must have heard about my day yesterday, I had two cranky boys. I just Love, Love these ideas. Thank you so much for these wonderful reminders.

  17. ooooh. these are so, SO good. and doable. I have used the Cereal Trick a time or two with my Main Man – at 3, reasoning is still a little tough for him, but this positively works. and i, too, have found that if my kids are given the option, they’ll throw on some clothes and head to the backyard the minute they wake up, which does seem to be a great start to the day.

    thanks for this!

  18. This. Is. Awesome.
    Thank you for these simple, practical, and fun parenting ideas. The essence of simple mom! I know I will be using the ideas with my 3 year old.

  19. Thanks for the reminder, Megan. My boys are away at grandma’s today and there’s nothing like a little silence and space to make you miss them! I love your tips and have used the cereal box one a lot (love that book!). The “shaking the meanies out” is definitely one I will try soon.

  20. avatar
    Christine says:

    Thanks. I needed this post today. We’re finally at home after weeks on and off the road and a move and we’re all done and missing having a routine and simple expectations for the day. My toddler is asking to go back to school! I’m going to try to start the day with play instead of Elmo and use a few more of your suggestions. Thanks!

    • Oh, the lack of routine in summer is such a mixed blessing! It’s fun to be flexible, but oh my goodness do little ones ever need a routine! Hopefully you’ll find yourselves back in a good groove very soon.

  21. avatar
    Jean-Marie says:

    Great ideas…and very timely! I can’t wait for the chance to shake the meanies/crankies/mopies out of my kids. :-) In S. Florida the temps have been 90+ degrees so I’ve been challanged to find affordable, cool, indoor ways to play. Your last suggestion inspired me to suggest the kids to pull out all of the stuffed animals and set up their own zoo. Maybe we can even pop little bags of popcorn for our stroll through our zoo. :-) Thanks for the great ideas!

  22. Oh my goodness, this was so helpful. We’ve definitely hit a wall around here, not to mention the kids have had runny noses so I felt like I can’t take them to the pool, which is usually our go-to activity in the afternoons. Thanks for all these wonderful suggestions!

  23. I love the Cereal Trick! And the shake it out. I wonder how that works with the Whine-y’s? : )

  24. Thanks so much! I get so caught up in the “discipline” side of dealing with my 4-year-old that I forget the playful ways of dealing with conflict. Playful parenting tips always make me breath a big sigh of relief.

    • I’m the same way. It’s so easy to get so micro-focused on correction, isn’t it? I have to be very mindful not to stay there. This summer, I’ve really been working on proactive things to keep all of us on track which (sometimes) creates an atmosphere where there is less need for correction. That’s on the Good Days. Bad Days? I’m thankful for do-overs!

  25. Great article! I love the idea of a play session in the morning. I will have to try that with my boys. Shaking out the crankiness I know they will love. I just wrote a post about my favorite playful tactic – Singing. It can be a great distraction for a grumpy kid (or mom) and it is fun!

  26. I love this post. In my travels, I’ve noticed parents in other countries are much better at getting down to playing with their kids. Not just sitting and watching their kids play. It seems to make the whole experience of being a parent richer and more rewarding. Thank you for sharing this concept in such a timely and relevant manner.

    • It kind of takes practice to find your play groove! ;) It really is liberating to just have FUN with your children every now and again. I hope more parents will be inspired to play!

  27. great suggestions! We’ve been trying to have playtime together each morning too, and it really does make a big difference to start the day that way, even if it is only 5 minutes doing an easy puzzle or playing dollies together. I’m going to try the puppet hand next time we need a silly infusion. :)

    • Thanks for stopping by, Michelle, and thank you for sharing your thoughts on Playful Parenting. I am hoping to read the book itself very soon!

  28. Thanks for the tips! I’ll have to save this post. In the craziness of the day, I remind myself to enjoy it!

  29. Megan,
    I definitely need this inspiration. I don’t know that I play – hardly at all – with my kids. I watch them play, I push them on swings, and I ask them to help me work. :( :( That’s no good at all! Glad you shared these thoughts to point that out to me in my own household.
    :) Katie

    • I’m glad you found this to be inspiring, Katie. I like starting our day with play because I feel like I really get a chance to connect with them on their level before we go about the business/work of the day. It’s so great for building connections!

  30. http://www.shortform.tv/u/alicia.ramirez/
    check out my kool videos!

  31. Just last night, after reading your article, I tried the “cereal trick.” (#4) Owen wanted a popsicle for dessert…I didn’t pick any up at Trader Joe’s. He started to almost throw a fit, and then I jumped in with the, “I wish I had a huge popsicle right now! I want a raspberry one! What flavor do you want?” Owen jumped right on that train, and replied he’d like a green and orange one (his favorite colors right now) and that we should get one for Brody, the cat, too.
    Thanks for reminding me that parenting doesn’t always have to be serious. :)

  32. How about changing up the routine of things! Start your day backwards! Throw some spontaneity in your life…I love shaking it up from time to time because it really freshens up my schedule and ultimately my baby’s day! :)

  33. Absolutely brilliant article, Megan. So practical! I actually took your advice and did the “shake out the grouchies” one and I’m proud to say – IT WORKED. For all of us. (Mumma most of all?) Thanks, friend!

    • ABSOLUTELY Mumma most of all! That truly makes the biggest difference, I think. When I am relaxed, happy, silly, and open to connection, so many other things just fall into place.

  34. Fun ideas! I like the cereal trick…have to remember that one for when my little one is a little older!

    It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyhow. Reading “shaking” as part of a tactic for dealing with children does give me pause. I know that you’re not advocating shaking your child hard but “shaken baby syndrome” is a real issue and if you’re upset it’s best not to start shaking your child at all. Again, I know that it was suggested as a playful thing but parents please use caution when shaking children!

  35. Talk about good timing! We moved just 3 weeks ago, and I’ve been sad ever since. My kids have done great, but as the days go by, I have become increasingly aware of how my bad moods create tension for the entire household. Thank you for some tips to shake things up!!

    • Aw, moving is so tough! It’s so stressful and full of such complicated emotions. Be gentle with yourself, mama, while you transition. You’ll hit your usual stride soon enough!

  36. My now adult daughter and I would sometimes sing our conversations, usually at my prompting by starting to sing off-key and very loudly, often when they were becoming tense, and that would reduce the intensity of the moment. Sometimes it would evolve (or devolve as the case may be) into absurd theatrics and great cause for laughter. When she was in a contrary mood, I would ask her if this was “Opposite Day”, and then we would turn everything we said to each other into its opposite, and it became a fun game of having to think about what was being said before hurtful words flew. As she got older, say aged 6, our most fun play was with food, and in the midst of it, I taught her how to cook, and to this day we share much joy in the kitchen. We have a beautiful, healthy, honest, and laughter filled relationship. I heartily endorse playing!

  37. avatar
    michelle says:

    my 4 year old son never had the terrible two’s or even a tantrum for that matter, he is by all accounts a really great kid. just recently i am finding myself at my wits end with him and feeling very overwhelmed many times during most days, it’s as if i have no way to defuse simple things and they rapidly escalate to ugly behavour from me and a sad, upset child :(
    i was seriously considering heading to the doctors next week to have my hormones checked and maybe see if anti depressants might be the answer.
    DRASTIC TIMES ARE CALLING FOR DRASTIC MEASURES.

    these simple (genius, inspired) ideas are exactly what i need to implement, considering the tension in my day is from how i respond to things, they would resolve all the day to day bumps in the road.
    you have just changed my life! and most importantly , my sons!
    THANK YOU SO MUCH.

    • avatar
      michelle says:

      the last 2 days have been amazing.
      these four gems have been a blessing to our family.
      there has yet to be a situation that hasn’t been resolved with these ideas.
      lots of laughter and no more tears (from me or the 4 year old).
      THANKS AGAIN!
      (an impromptu hand puppet to pick and peck off those frustrations had us all in fits of laughter! my own little combo or #2 and#3. got to say it again, THANK YOU).

  38. What great, simple ideas! I have an 11 month old, so the main idea that I’m taking from this piece is to start our day with play. How easy and fun is that? I’m wondering how things will go for us when we do that on a regular basis before we begin some of the “must dos” of the day. Crawling through his tunnel at 7 a.m.? What could be better than that?!

  39. Well done and well written. Even though my kids are older (ages 10 and 14), that playful and joyful approach to parenting still serves me well.

    But I don’t think we can do away with all of sibling rivalry. I think it’s part of growing up, and learning to live with and love someone else. My kids get along, and they fight, and either way, I think it’s all part of the growing process.

    If you are interested, here’s my take on whether it’s possible, or even advisable, to expect siblings without rivalry (see link below).

  40. I’ve had the same experience with my 4 and 2 year old boys with playing first thing in the morning. I hadn’t been doing it much lately (I’m pregnant with baby #3 and have been so incredibly tired) but we did today and what a difference it made! Thanks for the encouragement to stay light hearted and connect with our kids. I think as much as silliness helps them through the day it keeps me playing and having fun too.

  41. These are wonderful tips, Megan! I especially like the 1st one – “Start the Day with Play.” It’s so easy to be overly busy or task-oriented in the mornings (checking e-mail, doing laundry, etc.)…but I can definitely see how starting the day with lighthearted activity would set a positive tone for the whole day. I’m going to intentionally try it this week! :)

  42. I love the “shake it out” suggestion! Typically, when my kids are grouchy, we are able to get them to turn it around with a good tickling and gentle rough housing. Sometimes silly faces works well too, we just have to be careful with that one… if our kids think we aren’t validating their feelings, they tend to become more upset

  43. I could not agree more with you, playing with children is very important because it establishes a connection between parents and children. In this way it creates an emotional connection, not a hierarchical relationship, where the children are doing just what their parents say.

  44. I find summer the easier time for play. I love being outdoors and I love gardening and so does my 3 year old. We can play lots and generally he loves to play ball, be chased and likes jumping on his dad.

    I don’t know how I am going to cope with this Winter though – being stuck indoors most of the time is when I start to struggle. We play a lot but sometimes I just feel I want to play more but not sure what to do!

    Thanks for the ideas – particularly liked how you turned around the zoo situation. Something I think is going to inspire me when my son wants to go out somewhere and we can’t!

  45. Shake it out is such a lovely idea as my daughter is 2 and is just starting to say things like “Don’t like Daddy” and I’m certainly going to try this out. We already pretend that we have crocodiles in the garden pond so will continue to add animals in our game reserve (back garden). Lovely article, thanks

  46. First off I have never tried playful parenting before but plan on giving it a try as I have a high functioning autistic son ( he is turning 13 on the 22 but developmentally he’s about 7 ). My son complains that I am always “yelling” at him and never ask him “nicely” no matter how nice I ask him to do things. It starts out with me saying something like Cori take out the trash please, ( ten minutes later) Cori, I ask you to take the trash out please do so please. ( ok mom but ten minutes later ) Cori The Trash ! I need you to please take out the trash. Now Please ! (my voice is slightly elevated but ten minutes later) Cori that’s it Ive told you to many time either get take out the trash Now or Else ! ( he finally does it). If I forget to remind and nag it wont happen at all Ive tried telling him one time then saying only 1,2,3 or three every 30 seconds or so punishing him on 3 if not done that worked when he was younger but not now he just throws a tantrum calls me names ect. and I have to deal with that ! I try to be positive parent but every time I’ve tried it fails but this sounds like it might work ! I think this may meet him were he is. That brings me to the second thing I am wondering wont kids argue,smart mouth, ect more with the shake the bad mood out trick, so that you will do it as in acting up for the attention ? I’m debating on trying this tip with the variation of tickling the meanies out do to my sons size and age but am concerned he may mouth off more

  47. I believe strongly in “playful parenting” for bonding with your children. I think all too often we get caught up in the “hustle and bustle” of life and forget to simply- ENJOY OUR KIDS. Playing “sneaky snakes” is always popular at my house. If you’re looking for a fun game to play with your kids you can read my post here: http://glamalife.com/2010/online-mom-community/playful-parenting-how-to-raise-stark-raving-mad-kids/ All the Best- Heather

  48. avatar
    Kassandra Brown says:

    Great article. My 7 year old often asks for tickles and wants to be tickled and tickled. She has a tendency to get the “meanies” and she’s realized that this helps her a lot! We have safe words (“stop” means stop and now so does “mustard”) but shrieks of “no, no no!” are invitations to tickle more. At first I wondered if I was sending her mixed messages about being able to say no and have people listen, but she is very clear on how to get me to stop tickling her. Being loved (in this case tickled) through resistance is key for me feeling heard and loved sometimes. Just be sure there are safe words for stopping and starting (“go” means start tickling again in our house).

  49. I used to start each day with a nature walk with my two and it was a fabulous way to start the day. Our schedule has changed so that we had to drop the nature walk, but I’m wondering if I could reincorporate it in some way … breakfast on the porch, yoga in the yard, a walk around the block?

    Thanks for the inspiration! The one way that I get playful with my kids that works the best at reconnecting us and chasing away the grumpys is the LAVA GAME, which is in the book Playful Parenting. My bed is the island/boat and everything around the bed is lava. We take turns rescuing each other from the lava or trying to push each other into the lava. Lots of hugs, kisses, cuddling, and wrestling. Works every time!

  50. Great tips!

    I start the day with play with my Micro Dictator. It’s normally quite lightweight play (such as LEGO or cars) I try and get 20 minutes of play before I leave for work. It really sets me up for the day!

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