For therapist, parenting coach and mother of three Tammy Gold, there is nothing silly about play. “As parents, we sometimes lose our understanding about the importance of fun—and how crucial it is to children and to the well-being of our family,” Gold explains. “We tend to focus on the things we think we ‘ought’ to do instead of focusing on fun. But the fun component is crucial to raising a happy family, and a happy child tends to do better in everything.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees. In a clinical report by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, the AAP emphasizes play as essential to the healthy development and well being of our children by contributing to their cognitive, physical, social and emotional health. The AAP also encourages play to strengthen a child’s relationship-building skills, help children develop resiliency and to allow their creativity to blossom. In addition, engaging in fun activities with children offers an ideal opportunity for parents to create lasting traditions, rituals and family memories.
But despite these benefits, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research reports that time for fun and free play in children’s lives has decreased markedly in the past 30 years. While this may seem like the unavoidable side effect of our increasingly busy lives, Gold posits that bringing the fun back is not as hard as you might think. “The good news is that there are easy and inexpensive ways to increase happiness. Everyday moments can be fun and you don’t need special equipment or money to make it happen.”
Creating Rituals for Fun
The first step to increasing your family’s fun quotient is to define what your family considers fun and then build meaningful rituals accordingly. “It’s important not to assume that your definition of fun matches your child’s,” Gold cautions. “Ask what fun means to them and spend some time observing the things that your kids really seem to enjoy doing. These types of things are key and a great jumping-off point for bringing fun new rituals to your daily life.”
Unlike routines, which seek to provide organization and continuity, rituals provide connections between family members and foster loving, healthy relationships.
“In a world of scary, unpredictable events, rituals are comforting,” Gold explains. “They are something special the child can identify with that can help them feel secure.”
Bringing the Fun Back
“Fun is the number one component of a meaningful, happy life,” Gold explains. “It’s not money and success; it’s happiness and fun that make our life worthwhile.”
But amid the pressures of work, errands and chores, how can a busy parent find time to emphasize fun? Gold recommends setting aside a specific time to focus on fun with your kids and finding ways to increase the fun quotient in your everday tasks.
The results of these changes—happier kids, improved cooperation among family members, and stronger relationships—are the beneficial side effects of an overall increase in your family’s fun.
Focusing on Fun: New Ways to Incorporate Play
Need creative inspiration for ways to bring the fun to your family? Try these suggestions, adapt them as needed or create your own rituals based on the activities your family most enjoys.
- Brand it. Instead of just ordering pizza and turning on a movie, dubbing it “The Jones Family Pizza Extravaganza and Blockbuster Movie Night” makes it exciting for children. “Tailor your rituals to what your child likes and really personalize them,” Gold encourages. “Use the new name to make the event a standing date and watch the anticipation grow each week.”
- Think outside the game box. “Video games like Wii or the XBOX 360 Kinect offer a more interactive and engaging experience,” explains Melissa Barbara, editor of Celebrations.(www.celebrations.com), a website filled with party planning tips, creative recipe ideas and more. “Your kids will be excited to show you the ropes.”
- Shake on it. Create a family handshake and have each member add a movement to it when you greet each other each day. Or, take turn shaking each other’s feet or elbows—anything to spice up the traditional greeting—and make a point to do it every time a family member comes home.
- Share memories. Show pictures of yourself or your spouse as children, or break out your wedding album to show your kids. “Talk about how life and times have changed,” suggests Zorianna Kit, journalist and resident tipster on the syndicated daily newsmagazine show America Now.
- Create a vision board. “The goal is to cut out images or words that represent you and what you want your life to look like in the future,” Aprille Franks-Hunt, author, speaker, life and business advisor from Norman, says. “The family can create the one board together so that each member has a contribution to a family goal or they can create individual boards. Studies show that we are more likely to accomplish our goals when we can see them visually, so this is a fun and inexpensive way to work towards family goals.”
- Compete together. Create your own sporting event or tournament. Croquet, soccer or badminton all lend themselves to healthy competitive play. If the weather doesn’t allow outdoor recreation, play volleyball in your living room using your couch or coffee table and a balloon—how long can you go without letting the balloon touch the floor?
- Start a family journal. “Let your entire family document your memories, discussions, and plans by creating a family journal,” suggests Polly Schlafhauser, president of Families With Purpose (www.familieswithpurpose.com), an online resource dedicated to helping families build their best life. A family journal is an on-going diary of your family's life that you can use to capture memories of family outings and vacations, favorite recipes, important dates, family goals and the thoughts and feelings of yourself and your growing children. “Or simply use it leave love notes or letters to each other,” Schlafhauser suggests.
- Give each month a theme. “Tie the theme into many of the things you do that month,” explains Amanda West of Colorful Concepts for Kids (www.colorfulconceptsforkids.com), a company that designs educational art for toddlers and preschoolers. “For example, you could spend one month learning all about the ocean. You can go to the library to find books about surfing and ocean animals, have a movie night where you watch Finding Nemo, look up water experiments on the Internet (i.e. floating vs. sinking), or go to the local pool to learn about waves. By focusing on one theme at a time and viewing the month as a whole unit, these individual events become much more interesting.”
Increase the Fun in Everyday Tasks
Having your daily agenda filled with errands, appointments and other “must do’s” doesn’t mean the fun has to be gone from your day. Try a few of the following suggestions:
Getting ready for your day:
- Turn getting dressed into a scavenger hunt. Tuck shirts, pants, socks and shoes into different hiding places around the room or house. Start the fun by asking “Can you find your socks?” or “Where, oh where, did your shoes go?”
- Have a race to see who can get dressed or brush his teeth first. “It’s all really just creative play,” Gold explains. “But, in this case, you are also accomplishing important daily tasks and still enjoying the process.”
At the grocery store:
- Have your child become a grocery store detective. Ask him to use clues to determine what foods will be on what aisles. Launch a full-fledged investigation in the case of the missing green beans (or any other item on your list) and have him tell you a story as to who the likely culprit might be. Be outrageous in coming up with motives and clues until you locate all the items on your list.
- Using your cell phone camera, have your child take a photo of the food that she would like in her lunch box the next day, or the ingredients of a meal she would like to enjoy. Make sure she includes all components of the recipe or meal. Feel free to have siblings pose with the items for added fun.
- Throughout an entire grocery trip, pledge to only speak with accents or sing in opera voices. “People might look, but you’ll be too busy having fun to notice,” Gold says.
At meal times:
- Ask your child to help cook and ask them what they think will happen when different ingredients are added. Add food coloring to foods such as pancakes or mashed potatoes to create out-of-this-world concoctions.
- Turn meal preparation into a cooking demonstration, à la Julia Child. Using your best television voice, take turns narrating different steps of meal preparation. Use as many fun and colorful adjectives as you can think of, such as “delectable,” “scrumptious,” and “luscious.” No description is too over-the-top
- Continue the play-acting at the dinner table, providing commentary on how delicious the meal is. The upshot? Your child might even expand their palate trying dishes they might not otherwise enjoy and you avoid the fuss of trying to get them to eat new and different foods.
- “Go a little Sesame Street on your family and serve foods that start with the same letter or color,” suggests Alexandra Kuykendall, Content Editor for MOPS International (www.mops.org). “Or, pick a country or part of the world to guide your menu. This can be stretched out among many nights and will help you with the daily dilemma of ‘what’s for dinner?’”
At appointments or events:
- Get creative with impromptu math. Have your child count the freckles on your arm, the number of eyelets in your shoes or how many of their hands it takes to measure the length of your leg.
- Draw letters, write messages or draw pictures on each other’s backs or arms and guess what the other person wrote. Spell words such as “I love you” or your last name and have your child decipher what you are writing.
- At a wedding or graduation, have your child draw a picture of herself with the bride or graduate. It keeps them occupied and also makes a fun keepsake for the person of honor. “If you can use a fun activity to engage them and incorporate them into the event, it’s a win/win,” Gold explains.
Let the Fun Begin!
No matter how your family spells fun, Gold encourages parents to remember how important enjoyment and play is to a child. “Having fun is the perfect way to bond and get to know your child,” she reminds. “You can do every craft in the world, take every lesson and class and read every parenting book. But the way to have a happy child is simple—raise them in a happy, joyful and fun home. You’ll never wish they had taken more lessons, but you will wish that you would’ve taken more moments to soak up the fun.”
Now, get out there and let the fun begin.
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor of MetroFamily Magazine. Her family’s rituals include “Attack of the Bubble Hands” at bath time with her 3-year old and 6-year-old, which usually results in big fun—and water all over the bathroom floor.