A Befuddled Adult’s Guide to Playing With Little Kids

Advice for people who don’t know how to interact with children

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Diane Stopyra Follow Mar 25

Intheory, playing with a kid should be the easiest thing in the world. After all, there are no rules. There’s no script to follow. Don’t know what you’re doing? Just make it all up. In fact, making it all up is sort of the point.

And yet, as soon as my nephew takes out the Legos or blocks or PAW Patrol figurines, I turn into an awkward, bungling goon. Make the toy airplane fly? Okay, but, like, where to? And do I need to make some kind of flying noise? Are you sure you don’t want to watch a movie instead?

“Adults always have a self-consciousness about their play,” says Michael Follett, director of the international Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) organization. “To children, play is innate — an instinctive, evolutionary behavior — and the boundary between play and reality doesn’t exist. When a child is a dragon, they are a dragon. When you’re the dragon? You’re acting” — and this acting comes more naturally for some than for others.

The good news? The more you work at it, the better your play literacy becomes. And, for the sake of the next generation, you should work at it. Play is critical to emotional, cognitive, and social development — its importance to children has been likened to that of sleep and nutrition. In fact, childhood play is so necessary for healthy, well-adjusted adulthood, the United Nations recognizes it as a fundamental human right.

When something is this crucial to the kids in your orbit, you’re probably going to want to join in. But what’s a befuddled aunt — or uncle, babysitter, friend, or even parent — to do?

Ages 0–1

The good news is that you already have a built-in secret weapon with this age group: your face.

Newborns are better able to process faces than they are any other toy or object, and, from the moment they enter the world, they’re enamored with them. At just a few days old, a baby can differentiate between three facial expressions — happy, sad, and surprised — and the attraction to faces only grows from there.

So, during the first year, choose storytime books that have close-up drawings of characters, or keep a photo album of family members at your disposal. And, most importantly, spend a lot of time face-to-face with the child, making as many silly expressions as possible. Not sure where to begin? Be a copycat, smiling or opening your mouth when the baby does.

Another built-in tool? Your voice. Simply hearing it isn’t just fascinating to babies; it also helps lay the foundation for language skills. This is especially true if you use baby talk — a singsongy, high-pitched tone — which is scientifically proven to engage an infant’s mind more than normal adult speech. Having a game plan can help this feel less awkward. Consider explaining the plot of a book you’re reading, or giving the baby a tour of, say, your kitchen. Or simply try vocalizing whatever it is you’re doing in the moment.

“Narrating events around the house, whether that’s getting dressed or feeding the baby, helps the child develop what’s sometimes called script knowledge,” says James Johnson, a professor of early childhood education at Penn State University. “You’re equipping them with the beginnings of language to match their social world.”

And though it may not be the kind of conversation you’re used to, it’s important to think of this process as just that — a conversation. If the baby coos in the middle of your monologue about the dishwasher, react with words: “Oh, you like that digital leak sensor, don’t you?” And when the baby begins using words, build on them. If she points to the street and says “Bus,” you say: “That’s right, a red bus.” It’s a strategy called serve and response, and it paves the way for future learning.

When you’re singing or reciting nursery rhymes, try to build in some fingerplay — this is the time to search the recesses of your brain to remember your “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “This Little Piggy” moves. The combination of a visual component with an auditory one makes the experience multisensory, and, in turn, more captivating for your audience. Finally, throw in a lot of butterfly kisses to the nose, raspberries on the belly, and other physical touches, all of which help establish a foundation of love and trust that will only make playtime easier in the future.

Ages 1–3

One of the biggest mistakes adults make at playtime is simply trying too hard. We attempt to tackle it like we tackle a job or to-do list — with an agenda. But it’s important to take a step back and remember: You’re in the kid’s office now.

“Play is a process that comes from the child — it’s of the child and led by the child,” says Follett. “The best thing we can do is look and listen while at the child’s level, and wait for an invitation into their world. Follow their verbal and nonverbal cues.”

Think of your role here as that of stage manager. Your most important job is to create safe, rich environments with plenty of props children can explore and manipulate — regular household items will work fine here. Simply moving your couch away from the wall creates a space that can become a bear cave or secret city, Johnson says. Or try dumping dry pasta on the floor of the living room to see what kind of imagination that sparks.

“Wait for an invitation into the child’s world. Follow their verbal and nonverbal cues.”

If you’ve noticed the child latching onto a particular schema, or pattern of play behavior, provide items that will nourish this specific appetite. For instance, have they stuffed a cookie in the DVD player recently? That’s par for the containment schema course, in which a child becomes very interested in putting things inside other things. In this case, bring out the sand buckets from your last beach vacation or the measuring cups from the kitchen. Another example is the connection schema, in which children grow fascinated with putting things together or taking them apart. Scotch tape and ribbons, or anything that can bind two objects together, are magical here.

If you’re invited into the play but you’re not quite sure how to engage, try mirroring the child. While toddlers may not appear to be paying attention to others, they’re actually closely monitoring — and learning from — what’s going on around them.

“Reflect on what they are doing,” says Tugce B. Arda Tuncdemir, an early-childhood education specialist who teaches the course “Play as an Educative Process” at Penn State University. “If they’re playing with kitchen items, you might say something like, ‘Oh, you’re cooking something in the pan!’ Then you can follow suit.”

Ages 3–5

While many adults tend to focus on kids’ school readiness at this age, play for play’s sake is still paramount. Not everything has to be about mastering the alphabet or honing math skills. If you’re playing a game of Candy Land, for example, avoid adopting a teacherly mindset.

“The child will sense this and the play will become less fun,” says psychologist Peter Gray, a professor at Boston College and the author of Free to Learn, a book about the benefits of play. “The learning will still come — in Candy Land, for instance, you have to count out the number of spaces you can move on the board — but let it be incidental to the game. Don’t push it.”

Don’t be afraid to engage in the less academic kind of play, like physical play or roughhousing, which builds emotional intelligence. If you’re not sure where to begin, try lying on your back, putting the child on your feet, and lifting your legs up and down. Be sure to pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues that a child is no longer enjoying this exercise.

“Play should involve a lot of negotiation — who gets to use what prop, or what game should be next. It’s an extraordinarily important skill to develop.”

The benefits of outdoor play for this age group — improved motor skills, better immunity, and decreased risk of turning into a bully — are also well-documented. But this can be scary for the adult in charge: What happens if a kid falls out of a tree on your watch?

“Your job is to keep children from killing themselves, not from hurting themselves,” Follet says. “Falling over, tumbling off things — it’s all essential to development.” Plus, if you can loosen up a little, you can better avoid the self-consciousness you might otherwise feel while, say, jumping into piles of leaves or climbing over rocks alongside the child.

But while you want to follow their lead, you also want them to remember that play involves compromise, especially when they’re doing it with other kids. “Make-believe is very big for kids in this age group,” Gray says. “Sometimes, a child will want to dictate the whole thing — for example, making their mom be the pet dog each time, or making her play the same game 500 times. Well, if a child were playing with other children, these kids would stand up for their rights and say, ‘No, I’m not going to play if I have to be the dog every time.’”

“Play should involve a lot of negotiation — who gets to use what prop, or what game should be next,” he adds. “It’s an extraordinarily important skill to develop.”

No matter how well you’re doing, though, you should also make sure to facilitate playtime with other kids — especially older kids, since these new playmates will model behaviors encouraging the younger ones children to stretch beyond their abilities. It’s pretty impossible for two 4-year-olds to toss a ball back and forth to one another, for example — it will never be straight enough to catch, and attention spans will wane. But bring an 8-year-old in? Suddenly everyone’s kept on track, and the activity becomes doable.

“It’s not an intentional, conscious thing,” Gray says. “But age mixing pushes the younger child to play at a more sophisticated level, and the older child learns leadership and caring in the process.” And who knows? Maybe those befuddled adults in the room will learn a thing or two as well.