It's happened again.
Parents are asking how they can play with their kids? This question always takes me by surprise because it seems like playing is as natural as any of the other instinctive and mammalian things we humans do. But it's not when our minds get in the way.
Parents want to know what they can do to create "productive" play. They want play that has a specific "outcome." They don't want to "waste time." Well, I suppose when you put it that way, you could get stressed out.
Despite all the marketing emphasis on results from educational toys, play in its purest form is the very antithesis of outcome-driven activity. Play is about the process of discovering, expressing, interacting with no predetermined outcome. It is more like a science experiment than a business function. The primary benefit of play is not the result, but the process. The gift of play is that it allows us to be in the moment, to respond to what is presented to us. And, quite frankly, this is a much more important thing to learn than the alphabet sequence. That comes when it comes, but setting up a lifelong ability to respond to what is happening in the moment is, as MasterCard would say, priceless.
So, the first thing parents should do is let go of expectations. I know that's hard. With time in short supply and many things competing for attention, today's parents want every moment to be productive. That way madness lies, but never mind that for a moment. Let's start by recalibrating the perception of productive as time spent interacting with a child with no phone calls, no buzzing Blackberry and no outside intrusions.
For the youngest children, simply sitting down with them is sometimes all that needs to be done. Let the child guide the activity. Yes, if they hold up a block, you can say, "That's a red block," but what happens next should be the child's choice. Put it on a pile; throw it. It doesn't matter. You can simply respond to whatever that choice is. Nothing is being asked of you.
For older children, let them pick the activity. And let them shine. (This is the premise of all Cranium games, and worthy to be adapted across the board not just in play but in our culture. At least in healthy ways.) Yes, you're there to respond, to be a sounding board and to contextualize, but that's it.
That's why we love board games for part of the family play mix. They provide a context for social experience and a chance to model things like appropriate behavior when you lose (or win) and a chance for kids to realize that though they may have lost (or won) this time, the very nature of life and its unpredictable nature means there's no guarantee of what the next time will bring.
It's also important to know when to get out of the way. When kids are playing among themselves, it's often important for parents to be present, of course, but in the background. Kids need to practice making up their own games, communicating among themselves and learning both how to cooperate and resolve conflicts.
For parents, that can mean that your job is as simple as just showing up and being present to the experience. Your values and your "house rules" may provide a framework within which to play, but let the process of play take care of itself...and enjoy it.
P.S. The photo is the younger set of my nieces and nephews at a recent family gathering. They had all independently shown up with their Pokémon toys, and played happily for an hour or more as the adults watched from the kitchen. Note to toy industry: Pokémon is still super hot and its still a wonderful property with its structure, characters and as a platform for social interaction among kids.