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Defining Play

  • Laurie Winslow Sargent
  • 2003 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
Defining Play

Quite a few parents have asked me, "What qualifies as play?" as if there were one answer. Does sitting on the floor, coffee cup in hand, simply looking at a child and responding to her thoughts qualify? Absolutely. So do a host of other activities.

One dictionary defines the word playful as "high spirits, gaiety, and humor in action or speech." 1

Hmmm. Fun seems to be one key element here. Do you have fun with your children? Do they have fun with you? And how do you do that? Let's look at intriguing synonyms for play found in Webster's New World Thesaurus2: "Cut up, be the life of the party, play the fool, carry on."

Playing the fool may be tough for you if you struggle with spontaneity. Yet it can be learned, and I believe it is worth learning. You don't have to truly be a fool, but you can be willing to look a little silly on occasion in order to connect with others in a fun way. Silliness comes easier if you start with babies. Merely sticking a shoe on your head makes a baby laugh, because he's learned just enough about the way the world works to know that sneakers make ridiculous hats.

One evening when Tyler was six months old, he was trying so hard to crawl but just couldn't get it. Instead, he flopped about like a fish out of water. So-impulsively-I threw myself to the floor, copying his weird crawling attempts. I asked him, "Is this how you do it?" And that little six-month-old baby began to belly laugh hysterically. He was literally holding his little gut, gasping for air between giggles. Gordy heard his baby's laughter from the other room and insisted that I do the Fish Flop again, in front of him.

Well, as a mother, you can't sink much lower than flopping about on the carpet on your belly. But I was destined for silliness from that point on, doing anything it took to get a giggle from a child-a lovely, musical sound. And yes, my husband still respects me.

The synonyms for fun continue: "To amuse oneself, make merry, play games, rejoice, have a good time, horse around."

A game can be as simple as peekaboo with a baby, or as complex as a game of Risk or Monopoly with a teenager. But don't think that the word games must mean baby games, table or card games, or even the use of toys or crafts.

Some of my kids' favorite games require about a minute and revolve entirely around mundane chores-vacuuming, for instance. As I mow the carpet, my Vacuum Monster says, "Growl, growl, I am so hungry today; some little girls would be mighty tasty!" Then occasionally-without warning-I chase giggly preschoolers with the vacuum. They shriek delightedly, jumping up on the furniture. If the monster loses interest, the girls beg to be eaten again.

Another favorite, for little people as well as big people, usually occurs when my family is lazily lying around watching TV. I suddenly yell out, "Warm Laundry Alert!" and as they respond, "Oohh, me! Me!"I sprinkle warm T-shirts over them, fresh from the dryer.

As for horsing around, many dads identify with that definition of play. My husband's idea of tucking the kids in bed is jumping on them and wrestling with them. It's not highly conducive to sleep (ahem!) yet definitely conducive to giggles. Our friend Chuck makes kids into pillow sandwiches. He smashes a kid between two slices of bread (the pillows) after spreading on the condiments, a process which usually tickles. "To frisk, cavort, dance, romp, frolic, skip, caper."

Many of my own family's favorite ways to play involve music: slow dancing with an infant, swing dancing with a four-year-old, rapping with a teen-just enough to make him grimace. I'm grateful for twenty-five years of marriage to a man who loves a wide variety of music: classical, jazz, scat, gospel, rock, and ethnic. He's my resident disc jockey.

One evening, while listening to music as we ate dinner, Gordy leapt from his seat, midbite. Turning up the stereo, he began conducting with a fork. Aimee and I left the table to jitterbug. Tyler donned dark glasses and lip-synched into a carrot. Five minutes later we were back to eating-but that little bit of goofiness had pulled our family together.

Even when we're immobilized by seat belts in the car, if the tunes are catchy enough, we revert to head dancing and disco-style finger-pointing. Sometimes I'll turn my kids' heads, arms, and legs into a drum set to keep the beat. Mixed with silly play are also tender moments, including dedicating songs to each other. Who can resist a six-foot-one mustached bodybuilder who lip-synchs to his fourth-grade daughter, "I'll be there, for better or worse, 'til death do us part, I love you with every beat of my heart." 3 Okay, put away the hanky and let's move on.

Here are a few more play definitions: "Recreate, liberty, action" (hike or swim); "act in a play: impersonate"(eat imaginary cookies and play with puppets); and "engage in a sport: participate, engage, rival, compete" (play tennis or shoot hoops).

What a variety of ways there are to play! Play activities generally seem to fall into these categories (you may think of more):

  • Silly, spontaneous, one-to-one play and silly family play
  • Focused play: games, projects, playing with toys in a constructive way
  • Focused family outings: to the zoo, library, sports activities, etc.
  • Family vacations
  • Calming, cuddly activities: reading, massage


By ridding yourself of preconceived notions about "real" play, you've already taken the first step toward eliminating barriers to play. Some parents feel guilty about never doing craft projects with their kids. Don't good parents do that? Not necessarily. Some prefer the great outdoors; others would rather snuggle in a rocking chair, reading Winnie-The-Pooh. Your own interests and style will cause you to play in your unique way.

Of course, it is healthy to stretch yourself occasionally. It may require more discipline for you to arrange a play date that's fun for your child yet less fun for you. If she loves arts and crafts and you hate them, making a project together can be a lovely gift to your child. You might not have fun completing the project, but you will find joy as you watch your child reach mental or motor milestones in the course of play.

What if your child's interests turn you off? By participating in these activities occasionally, you may find your own interest stimulated after all. I experienced this when Tyler was young. He had a penchant for collecting little black salamanders from a nearby creek. Ugh. Slimy little things. I truly disliked them.

However, as we learned more about them from library books and observed one as a pet, I gradually caught Tyler's interest. When Tyler was at school, I actually found myself surreptitiously visiting "Sally" in the aquarium in the laundry room and crooning at the little black thing. When Sally was sent to an untimely death as a result of its home being shaken from the gyrating washing machine, I was actually a little sad.

We have lasting memories of Sally, however: photos of the salamander crawling through a Lego maze, and a home video that still makes us laugh. In the video, three-year-old Aimee is exuberantly petting the creature, confidently describing how Sally loves to eat pancakes with syrup and play with her dolls. "Wookit his gween teef," (teeth!?) she exclaims, then she chatters on, absentmindedly stroking-no, stretching-the salamander's legs.

She suddenly pauses-at the precise moment we planned to intervene to prevent loss of limb-looks adoringly at Sally, squeals, "Awww!" and kisses that slimy creature smack on the lips! (Eeuew!)


Okay, so you never considered videotaping a child kissing an amphibian as play. But we had fun taping it, unexpected as it was, and it made for a hilarious family memory. Any activity that connects you with your kids in an intimate way, or helps you learn more about your children-and they about you-qualifies as play.

You might think that moment with the salamander just happened-that you can't possibly plan such a thing, nor would you necessarily want to! True. But by being open to a potentially funny moment, in the spirit of playfulness, we stopped what we were doing to sprint for the camcorder and pay attention to our daughter. Otherwise we would not have caught "the kiss."

Many times since then, we have watched that tape and laughed together as a family. What a lot of play value for just a few minutes of spontaneous filming!


Endnotes: 1 New World Dictionaries (Paramus, N.J.: Prenice Hall Press, 1971). 2 Webster's New World Thesaurus, Revised Edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985). 3 Frank J. Myers and Gary Baker, "I Swear," copyright (c) 1994 Morgan-Active Songs, Inc.

Excerpt from The Power of Parent-Child Play by Laurie Winslow Sargent. Copyright 2003. www.tyndale.com. Used with permission. May not be reproduced or distributed.