5 Ways to Play with Your Child

A big thing that differentiates adults from children is the innocence babies are born with, and the ability to not take things so seriously. Play is something most of us don’t do in our adult life, because life gets oh-so-serious. But, it turns out, it’s crucial for childhood development. There’s a huge amount of research done into how play affects a child’s learning of the world.

I had the honour of attending the Africa Play 2019 Conference in Pretoria last month. It was co-hosted by UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation, in partnership with the Department of Basic Education and ADEA. Africa Play brought together policymakers, teachers, ministers, researchers and high-level representatives of development cooperation agencies from all over the world. The conference facilitated the important discussion and call to make play-based learning a key part of early childhood education programmes throughout Africa. There were insightful seminars and talks that shared research and ideas of how fundamental play is in childhood. There were also play-based activities around the conference centre for the attendees to do. (I personally loved the mega LEGO pit where we had to build a bridge :)) Most importantly, I learned just how much play in school and at home can benefit our children.

Joann Strauss was the very entertaining hostess of the conference


Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma delivered a powerful talk on the importance of equipping African children with the tools to compete on a global level.


Play may be something that you already do with your kids, as they naturally do it as a way of getting to understand the world. But many parents still feel silly, embarrassed or just don’t know how to indulge in some light-hearted fun. We all know why feeding our children nutritious meals, practicing basic hygiene and having a safe place to call home is important. I think it would help if we also knew why play is so important.

The Benefits of Play

  • Play is a critical form of stimulation that boosts children’s cognitive and physical development
  • It helps a baby’s brain develop, creating a strong foundation for life-long learning
  • It also highly contributes to a child’s emotional and social development
  • Play-based learning helps children to become creative and collaborative members of society

I grew up in a home where I had so many toys and access to great shows like Sesame Street, but playing with my parents didn’t really happen. Other great and important things were emphasized in our house, such as education, empathy, and discipline. I honestly believe that if they knew how beneficial play was, they would’ve made more of an effort to do so. As a new mom, a lot of the information I read and heard included playing with my baby to help him see and communicate, which I think a lot of new parents know and do, but it pretty much trails off after the child reaches toddler age.

So, what is play?

Something that was touched on in the conference was the misunderstanding of what counts as play, and the concern that buying toys gets expensive. As much as toys help, they’re not the only ways we can play with our children. There are things we already do in our daily life that we can make play out of. Work with what you have – hands, faces, household items like plastic cups for a ‘tea party’ are great. Even an empty box can become something awesome like a rocket ship. Kai loves playing hide and seek with a blanket where we hide under it and Kev is the ‘monster’ trying to find and get us. When it’s bath and bedtime, we make getting to his room a race – of course, Kai is always the victor. I entertain his imagination by finding the monster who lives in the corner of his room and chasing it outside, or we take turns pretending to sleep during the day. What’s fun about this is how we both make exaggerated snoring and snorting sounds and pull funny faces before the other person ‘wakes’ us up. He finds this hilarious…and his laugh is worth the silliness of it all.

5 Ways to Play

Inspired by findings from the LEGO Play Well Report by the LEGO Foundation, UNICEF, in collaboration with parenting expert, Jessica Joelle Alexander, put together 10 ways you can incorporate play into your life. Here are five of my favourites:

  1. Encourage free play – The less structured and supervised play is, the more rewarding children find it. Self-directed play empowers children so they develop confidence, autonomy, and self-esteem.
  2. Kickstart with physical play – Just ten minutes of an activity that gets hearts pumping and creates laughter, helps families to connect.
  3. Think creativity over mess – Children don’t see mess, they see a stimulating environment full of tools to help them be creative. We like to keep the house tidy, but that can mean hiding away vital playthings.
  4. Plan a family playdate – Children love having something to look forward to, so plan a family playdate even if it’s 15 minutes before dinner. Planning the date themselves will encourage creativity and train their decision-making skills.
  5. Gamify chores – A simple way to make chores more fun is to put on some music and turn dusting or folding into a dance party. Add an element of competition by trying to beat the clock, turning chores into precious bonding time.

As parents, we’re all so busy. Between working to put food on the table, to keeping the house clean and happy, it can get a bit tricky taking off the more serious mothering hat. It’s key for us to remember to include play in our interactions with our children, and work towards making it a part of our daily routine. So, now you know that play isn’t just a frivolous way to spend time with your kids and is actually helping them grow into well-rounded humans, I hope you have the confidence to start to play!

What are some of your favourite ways of playing with your children?

*All research findings provided by UNICEF South Africa.

Photography with Kai by Robyn Davie.



  1. Kevin O.
    March 18, 2019 / 8:33 pm

    Physical play is something I do all the time!

    • Aisha O'Reilly
      March 19, 2019 / 12:14 pm

      It sure is! And so glad you take over most times 🙂

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