Want Your Kids to Be Happy? Play with Them!

Why researchers say playing with kids is crucial to their happiness.

father and son playing outside
Playing with kids is one of the most things parents can do for them.. Sam Edwards/Getty Images

When's the last time you ran around outside playing tag or being goofy with your child? Or got down on the floor and played with Legos or had a pretend tea party? Research shows that one of the best ways to increase your child's chances of growing up to be a happy, well-adjusted person is also one of the simplest things you can do with your child: play.

Just running around with your child or chasing each other at the park has been shown to be linked to reduced risk of depression and anxiety and a great ability to feel empathy and compassion toward others.

In contrast, adults who didn't have physical affection and playtime with parents as kids were found to have negative outcomes like greater risk for anxiety and depression, more trouble with social situations, and reduced ability to see things from someone else's point of view, says Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame, who has researched and written extensively about the importance of play in child development.

In an article in the online January 14, 2016 issue of the journal Applied Developmental Science, Dr. Narvaez and her colleagues show that such positive bonding experiences with parents in childhood leads to happiness and well-being in adulthood. The researchers evaluated adults by asking them questions about how often they received physical affection or did things together as a family, and how often they felt joy or serenity; they also asked about negative experiences, such as whether or not they experienced corporal punishment as kids or how often they felt sadness or anxiety.

The adults who didn't have a lot of those positive parent-child experiences, like playing together, getting hugs, and feeling supported were much less able to deal with stressful situations, have empathy, and have other social, emotional, and moral skills. "They have a harder time being intimate or enjoying others in a flexible kind of way," says Dr. Narvaez.

There's even physiological evidence that shows what happens when a child isn't given enough playtime, affection, and attention: Brain scans show that when babies are left to cry and aren't given enough love and attention, the right hemisphere of their brains, which is where things like emotional skills, getting along with others, and self-regulation occur, start to shrink. Remember: Even as babies, children want to communicate with you (research shows that they use babbling and other sounds to try to get a "conversation" going with their parents and caregivers). Keep building on these instincts by playing and having fun with your child as often as you can.

Ideas for Parents: What to Play with Kids

Run around! Whether it's kicking around a soccer ball, playing tag, climbing a tree or chasing each other around on the grass in the park, just horsing around with kids can be an invaluable way to not only connect with your child, but get in some good exercise, reduce stress, and add some laughter and fun into your routines for both you and your child.

(Research in young mammals even shows that physical, rough-and-tumble play also leads to reduced aggression and better social connections, says Dr. Narvaez.)

Be silly. Hold a play and act out funny scenes. Dress up and make up lines or play characters from your child's favorite kids' book. Let kids use their imagination as you work together to make something fun.

Connect in as many ways as you can. While research shows that playing outdoors in particular hold lots of benefits for kids, such as getting fresh air and exercise, using their imaginations to create imaginary settings (like pretending they're in a fort or a castle in the park), and decreased stress, connecting and playing with kids on any level is important, too, even if you work together on a quieter activity. Alternate physical play and games with other activities you can do together like reading or working on crafts. If the weather outside is bad, build a fort indoors and get in there and pretend you're guarding against an invading army. The key is to connect and communicate with your child while you have fun.

Remember to be playful, even when you're not playing. When you're doing chores, take turns picking out favorite songs to dance to while you work or set a timer and see who can finish their chores first. Or make up silly stories or songs in the car on your way to school or the grocery store. Incorporate a little fun and laughter into your daily routines to make things more fun and add some laughter into your home.

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