Special Play Time — An Important Way for Parents to Spend Time With Their Children

For a parent to be able to spend half an hour of uninterrupted one-on-one time with his or her child is often seen as a luxury, especially in families with more than one child.  However 30-minute blocks of uninterrupted one-on-one time, where you as a parent are giving your undivided attention to your child, can be one of the most beneficial and valuable things you can provide for your child.   

What is Special Play Time?

What do I mean when I say Special Play Time? 

Basically, this is a time when your child is free to choose the play activities and you devote your full attention to that particular child.

What Are the Benefits of Special Play Time?

Strengthening the Parent-Child Relationship:

Most importantly, Special Play Time is one of the best ways to build and strengthen the relationship between you and your child.  The closer the bond and the stronger the relationship between the two of you, the more your child will want to please you and comply with your requests.  This means a better-behaved child for you!

Helping Your Child Get Over a Stressful Situation:

Situations such as starting school, moving to a new neighborhood, or the birth of a sibling can be stressful for children.  Play therapy, an approach where a trained play therapist helps a child heal and recover using the therapeutic benefits of play, is a treatment of choice for children who have experienced very difficult or traumatic situations.  The good news is that you, as a parent, are capable of being able to provide some of these same therapeutic benefits of play to your child during Special Play Time that play therapists provide for their child clients. 

What Do Parents Do During Special Play Time?

During Special Play Time, your child will lead or direct the play.  The most important thing you do is to listen to and observe your child.  By doing this, you will get an idea of some of the feelings your child is expressing during play.   

Now, you don’t just sit there silently watching and not saying anything!  The two main things you do are:

Feelings frequently expressed by children during play include happiness, excitement, interest, silliness, frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, fear, and surprise.  Watch your child’s face and body language to understand what the feelings are.

By doing these two things, you are letting your child know that you are interested and that you value what he or she is saying and doing.

Describing Your Child’s Play Activities

Things you might say to your child when describing his or her play activities:

“You drew a happy face.”
“You’re putting those two together.”
“Now you are going to use that box.”
“Now you’re putting her in the car.”
“You put him right in the bed.”
“You’re making a tall tower.”
“You’re the doctor now.”
“You made her spin round and round.”
“You’re filling that all the way to the top.”
“You’ve got them all lined up just how you want them.”
“That one just crashed right into the other one.”
“That one is sure making lots of noise.”
“You’re trying to fit that piece in there.”

Identifying Feelings Expressed By Your Child

Watch your child’s face and body language and acknowledge your child’s feelings and desires.

When your child is expressing feelings directly him or herself:

“You’re really interested in that.”
“That makes you happy.”
“You like how that feels.”
“That kind of surprised you.”
“That’s frustrating when it won’t fit.”
“It looks like you’re excited to see that.”
“You’re really angry about that.”
“You’re proud of your painting.”
“You like how you look with that hat on.”
“You really wish we could play longer.”
“You don’t like the way that turned out.”
“You’re sad that it fell over.”

When your child is expressing feelings indirectly through toys:

“That puppet is feeling silly today.”
“That soldier is really angry with the other soldier.”
“That little kitten looks scared of the big tiger.”
“That mommy is very sad that her baby is sick.”
“That looks like a scary place they are going to.”
“The dog family loves to be together and have fun.”

When Invited, Join In Playing With Your Child

WAIT for your child to invite you into his or her play.  For example your child may say, “You be the bad guy” or “Draw a house right here.”  After being invited, join in and play in the way your child directs you or how you think your child would want you to play.  Here are some examples of how you could respond after being invited to join the play:

“You would like me to cut out this picture.”
“So I’m supposed to draw a tree here.”
“You’d like me to attach that to your backpack.”
“You want me to put that mask on.”
“You want me to be the doctor and I’m supposed to listen to your heart.”
“Now I’m supposed to go to the store and buy some things.”
“So I’m supposed to be the teacher.”
“You want me to stack these just as high as yours.”

When Your Child Asks You a Question

If your child asks, “How does this work?” or “What is this?” you can encourage independence in your child by doing the following:

  1. Reflect your child’s curiosity:
    “You’re trying to figure out what that’s for.”
    “You’re wondering what that is.”
  2. Let your child decide:
    “You can decide how you want to use it.”
    “You can use that just about any way you’d like.”
  3. Give a simple answer if your child is really struggling:
    “Some people might use it as a table, but you can use it just about any way that you’d like.”

Provide Encouragement to Your Child

“It looks like you know how to make it spin.”
“I can see you’re working really hard on that.”
“You figured it out.”
“You’ve got a plan.”
“You know just how you want that to be.”
“It’s hard to do, but you just keep on trying.”
“Keep going. You can do it. You’ve made it part way already.”
“Looks like you’ve spent a lot of time thinking that through.”

Set Some Limits for Your Child

Are there things you would not allow your child to do during Special Play Time?  Yes, there are!  Limits to be set during Special Play Time are for (a) not hurting self or others, (b) not damaging things, and (c) time limits.  You would not allow your child to do something dangerous that could result in him or her, or anybody else for that matter, getting hurt.  You would also not allow your child to damage or destroy things such as toys or furniture. 

Time limits are also important.  Frequently, children like Special Play Time so much they are reluctant to have it end.  It is best, however, if you stick to the 30-minute time limit even if your child protests.  You can make the ending easier by giving 5 and 1-minute warnings.  At the end of the 30 minutes, you can also remind your child of the next scheduled Special Play Time.

You can also set limits for things that make you feel uncomfortable, like not letting your child play with your glasses or draw on your hands.  Parents need to think ahead of time of the things that they will and will not allow their child to do during Special Play Time so they are prepared.  However, keep in mind the idea that MINIMAL limits should be set for the child during this time in order that things do not deteriorate into a time of conflict between parent and child over rules. 

The best way to set limits is using a 3-step process.  Step 1, stating the rule, takes place the first time the rule is broken (or is about to be broken):

(1) State the Rule:

When the limit is broken a second time, you move on to Step 2, setting the consequence. .  Consequences for Special Play Time are usually removal of a particular toy or ending the Special Play Time for that day.

(2) Setting the Consequence (Giving a Warning): 

When the limit is broken for the third time, move on to Step 3, enforcing the consequences.

(3) Enforcing the Consequence:

What Parents Should NOT Do During Special Play Time

Special Play Time is indeed a special time and is distinct from other times in your child’s life.  This is not a time to teach your child something, correct him or her, or tell your child what to do.  Teaching, correcting, and giving advice can be done at other times.  The following statements would NOT be appropriate to use during Special Play Time: 

“You should sit up when you print.”
“You can’t put that big piece in there.”
“Let’s play with this today.”
“Here, let me show you how to do it.”
“Don’t get so angry.”
“Stop crying!”
“Don’t scribble on your paper.”
“That’s sloppy.”
“That’s the hard way of doing it.”
“Do it like you’re supposed to.”
“No, that’s not the right way to do it.”
“You can do much better than that.”
“Take your hair out of your face.”

This is not a time to ask questions to your child either.  Questions tend to distract your child from the play and put pressure on him or her to provide you with the right answer.  The following are examples of questions that you would want to limit the use of or NOT ask at all during Special Play Time:

“What’s that?”
“What shall we play?”
“What are you doing?”
“What’s that supposed to be?”
“What are you trying to do?”
“Why are you doing it that way?”
“What does the princess say?”
“What is the dinosaur doing?”
“What does that word say?”
“What colour is that?”
“How many purple ones are there?”
“Are you having fun?”

The Ultimate Benefit

When you and your child engage in Special Play Time, you as a parent are sending the following messages to your child:


For your child to receive these messages from you is truly one of the most valuable things that he or she could ever experience.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2007. All Rights Reserved.


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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC, CPT-S

MA, Counselling Psychology
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Certified Play Therapist – Supervisor
Child and Family Therapist

Kathy Eugster