I Hate Imaginative Play, but Here’s How I Make It Bearable
Imaginative play isn’t for everyone. Parents want what’s best for their kids, but often, that means doing things that they don’t really enjoy.
If it’s not natural for you, it can be difficult to come up with imaginative games to play with your toddler and cause you to dread the whole process.
Imagine the following scenario:
My toddler begs me to play with his toys and urges me to talk in that childish tone. I know what my 2-year-old wants. He wants me to ‘play pretend’ with him. My heart aches because I don’t have the energy or the patience to do this. It’s usually at the end of a long day and all I want to do is sit on the couch and watch him, or go on my phone when he’s not looking.
Then, my mind will start reiterating the American Academy of Pediatrics’ benefits of imaginative play, and how important it is for his development. So, I’ll roll my eyes and begin the most excruciating five minutes of my life as I pretend to be a race car that crashes into things and needs to be rescued by his fire truck.
For years, I hated playing with my kids until I developed a few ways to make it bearable. Here are my secrets.
1. I Set a Time Limit for Myself
One of the best pieces of advice I heard about playing with your children came from a mom’s group. I was a new mom at the time and I had brought my daughter in to socialize with the other babies.
The community nurse who set it up sat down beside me. She could sense I was nervous and didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so focused on my daughter, constantly worried she needed something, even though she was perfectly happy on the floor.
She introduced herself. She was a seasoned mom with three grown children. I asked her, “How can I stop staring at her? I feel like I need to be with her all the time.”
She responded, “Oh dear, she’s fine. You’re fine. You’re doing an amazing job. All you need is fifteen minutes.”
I was confused, “fifteen minutes?”
She explained, “Be present with her for fifteen minutes every day for the rest of her life. Just be present and don’t do more if you don’t want to. Feed her when she needs to be fed. Change her when she needs to be changed. Comfort her when she needs to be comforted. But don’t stress about anything else. You’re doing a lot already.”
So since then, I’ve followed this guideline of fifteen minutes, every day. When I start pretend-play with my kids, I usually do it while waiting for something, like when the laundry is running, the dishwasher is going, or when the oven is preheating.
The beeping sound will make it clear that mommy is done and will need to do something else. It gives me an ‘out’ but it also forces me to play with them.
2. I Embed Imaginative Play Throughout the Day
On days where I don’t have a full fifteen minutes to spare, I’ll try to embed imaginative play throughout the day with my kids. I’ll read ingredients or instructions on packages while I’m cooking and make up a silly song.
Instead of announcing what I’m going to do, I’ll sing and clap, “Mommy’s gotta pee. Mommy’s gotta pee”, or “Mommy needs a shower. Mommy needs a shower.”
I’ll break into dance whenever I feel like it. For instance, I like to wiggle and wave my arms around whenever we grind our coffee beans. The kids have a blast joining in.
3. I Use the "Repeat and Question" Game
Throughout the day, I like to repeat what my toddler says and turn it into a question. He often likes to talk about what he sees and hears. I’ll mimic what he’s doing and say the same thing. Then I’ll ask him a question - even if it’s something very ridiculous.
For instance, he enjoys feeding his stuffed animals pieces of Duplo and crashing his cars. I will do the same thing. Then I’ll ask questions like these:
How does the food feel when it is being eaten?
What happens to the food afterwards?
Are you a fast car or a slow car?
Where would you live as a car?
What would be your favorite thing to do as a car?
4. I Let My Brain Rest
The most wonderful and simultaneously annoying thing about imaginative play is that there are no rules.
As a writer, it can drive me insane whenever my kids jump from one storyline to another. We would be having a tea party at a castle and all of a sudden we are in an airplane and monsters are chasing us. Where’s the continuity and cohesion?
But I remind myself that that’s what makes it fun because it allows their imagination to stretch and cultivates their creativity. This is the time to stop thinking about logic. Nothing has to make sense and there are no right or wrong answers.
So much of my day involves meeting deadlines, checking off tasks on my to-do list, following rules, dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I view playtime as my opportunity to practice mindfulness as I genuinely connect and build trust with my kids.
5. I Put Myself in Their Shoes
We’ve all heard people say that ‘kids grow up quickly and it’s important to stop and smell the roses’, or something to that effect. But to be honest, I feel that so far, time has gone by at the rate that it’s supposed to go - not too fast nor too slow, just right.
A large reason for this is that when I play with my kids, I put myself in their shoes and focus on how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. It helps my brain stay open, active and curious. I pay attention to what is going on in the present moment instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.
Having children has forced me to slow down and appreciate the simple joys of life. So spending fifteen minutes pretending to be a talking owl is an investment in my well-being that I’ll gladly put effort into.
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