Caring for Kids: Playtime is Bonding Time   

Dad playing with child with sun shining in background.

Caring for Kids is a monthly article series by early childhood education experts in Child and Family Care and Children’s Centers.

Fostering a warm and supportive bond with your child is important for the healthy relationships they will form later in life. At first, this bond is created with simple acts of affection like holding and attentive care. But as your child grows, the relationship also grows, developing through engaging playtime and conversation, underscoring just how vital play is in creating a strong and enduring connection.

"Early interactions through touch and care pave the way for a deep emotional connection. As your child grows, it's through play that this bond is truly expressed and expanded upon," shares Christine Snyder, director, U-M Child and Family Care. "Unstructured time to play is when children learn trust, gain confidence, and feel loved and supported. That’s important at all stages of your child’s development."

The Serious Business of Play

Play is a child’s first language - it’s how they explore the world and develop an understanding. When you engage in play with your child, you’re speaking their language. This shared activity can create a strong bond that goes beyond words.

Emotional Connection Through Joy and Laughter

Joyful experiences, like play, release feel-good chemicals in the brain such as endorphins and oxytocin, which are associated with affection and attachment. This means that by simply playing a game of peek-a-boo or rolling a car back and forth, you're building an emotional bridge made of shared happiness and mutual trust.

Teaching Through Play

Playtime can also be a time for gentle teaching, helping to build the caregiver-child relationship. It’s a perfect opportunity to guide your child through emotions, share how to play fairly, take turns, and also express empathy and understanding. All lessons learned during play are typically remembered because they're grounded in experience and emotion.

Communication Skills

As children grow, play evolves. For example, pretend play encourages imagination and creativity, but it also fosters language development and social skills. By participating in your child’s fantasy games, you demonstrate that you value their ideas and thoughts, further strengthening your bond.

Building Trust

Consistent playtime with caregivers gives your child a sense of stability and trust. They learn that they can depend on you for not just their basic needs but also for fun and relaxation. This establishes your role as a source of support and love in all aspects of life.

Stay Engaged

It's important to note that active engagement, rather than passive observation, is key during play. Put away distractions, get down on their level, and fully immerse yourself in their world of play. Your undivided attention is more valuable than any toy.

Playtime at Every Age

Playtime isn’t just for toddlers and preschoolers. As your child grows, find activities that you both enjoy, whether that’s a board game, a sports activity, or an art project. The essence of bonding over play doesn't diminish with time; it just evolves.

Remember, playtime is an investment in your child’s emotional well-being and your ongoing relationship. By valuing and actively participating in play, you communicate to your child, "I love you, and I delight in being with you." This message, consistently received through various forms of play, lays the groundwork for a secure, trusting, and loving relationship that endures for life.

Read More About the Importance of Play

Young Children and School Age

Connecting with Adolescents

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