Over the last thirty to forty years, a subtle shift has happened in American homes—parents, particularly fathers, are playing more with their children. "I think it is a good change in that particularly fathers are spending more time with their kids," says Dr. Juli Slattery, family psychologist at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"Play helps build a connectedness between parents and children that can help them enjoy parenting more. As kids grow and strive for independence, a playful spirit within the home can help get the family through various stages and challenges during the teen years," adds Laurie Winslow Sargent, author of The Power of Parent-Child Play. Sargent blogs about the topic from her Ames, Iowa, home at www.ParentChildPlay.com.

Playmates

Play can provide parents with unique opportunities to bond with their children and to understand them better in a more relaxed atmosphere. "If all of the interaction [between parent and child] is only teaching, chores, disciplining and correcting, then a parent is really not having a positive interaction," says Slattery. "You're not only encouraging play and imagination for the child, but you're also developing and creating some really strong bonds and memories between parent and child."

By using play in addition to other parenting responsibilities, parents convey to their children they are important. "Playing is one of the ways that a parent can show children that they care about them and that they value spending time with them. When a parent never takes time to play, the child can get the idea that what he is doing isn't very important and that his time is not as valuable as his parent's time," says Rachel Paxton, a freelance writer who lives in Pasco, Wash., and publishes www.Christian-Parent.com and www.CreativeHomemaking.com.

Parents show children play's proper place in the home by helping them to see play's role in the household. "Children need to understand that parents need to do things such as cooking and household chores. Children should be required to help their parents with these tasks and then there is time for everyone to play together," says Paxton.

Playing with your children gives parents glimpses into their children's personalities. "Through play, we get to know our children better as individuals, which impacts all other aspects of the parent-child relationship," says Sargent.

Playtime

With families having increasingly busy schedules, working in playtime can seem like an impossibility. However, consider developing an attitude of play throughout your day and you can easily inject fun into your family. "Have an attitude of enjoying your kids, laughing with them, having that easygoing, playful spirit with your kids because that's contagious," says Slattery.

Sargent suggests working into daily life what she labels 5-Minute-Funs. These "playful moments … can suffice in small, sporadic bits during the day to keep parents and kids connected. However, it's important to set aside time at least every few days to devote attention entirely to a child and simply hang out with her. That's when some of the most interesting, fun and insightful moments happen: moments that surprise us with sudden insights about our children. This also feeds a child's need to feel close to a parent without distractions," she says.

Playful Balance

Of course, playing should not be the only interaction parents have with their children. By balancing play with other parent-child interactions, such as chores and discipline, parents teach "children there is a time for work and a time for play," says Paxton.

"When family members have playful attitudes, it affects many interactions not normally designated as ‘play.' A family dinner can become a symphony with the director using a carrot stick baton when classical music is playing in the background. That bit of silliness might last less than a minute but it strengthens the parent-child bond," says Sargent.