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):