Moments of Play: Ten Ideas for Family Fun

As a father of two girls—ages 5 and 1.5—and a mental health professional, I know the value of play firsthand. Play is stimulating and strengthens family bonds. But I also know firsthand the challenge of breaking out of “adult” mode and finding the right game to overcome boredom or stress. Here are ten ideas my family can always count on to stir up some fun:

1. Dress Up. Our 5-year-old is always creating costumes by wearing her clothes in different ways (such as a skirt sideways across her shirt). We help by selectively offering some of our old clothes. Mommy’s shoes are quite popular. A different twist my wife introduced is using old infant clothes to dress up stuffed animals.

2. Dance Party. This often goes hand-in-hand with dress up. I’ve made several CD compilations that combine grownup songs with kid songs, focusing especially on grownup songs with silly sounds or nonsense lyrics that are appropriate for children. You can also use an internet radio station like Pandora and add, for example, Muppets Radio and Motown Radio and have a nice family-friendly mix with broad appeal.

3. Family Timeline. It’s fun to remember things and create a page of reminders using words and pictures. The parents can provide the basic structure with dates, and perhaps remind children of when someone was born or when such-and-such trip occurred. Kids will fill in many of the details you’ve forgotten (the 5 year-old brought up the time she ripped the wallpaper in the bathroom, for example). You learn what is important to each family member while creating a visual history.

4. Voice Recording. I’ve recorded babies babbling, toddlers trying to remember lyrics, and shy preschoolers singing quietly. You can also mix it up and stage an “interview” or an imaginary radio show. Of course, you don’t even have to actually record it. Kids remind us that anything can be a microphone.

5. (Everything Is) Basketball. Those portable goals you hang over doors are nice, but I also try to make it fun for the littler one. So we shoot the ball into empty laundry baskets, storage chests, bins, and bowls.

6. Mystery Can. I took a large, empty coffee container from the recycling bin and taped positive words and some images to it. I’ve put small objects in it that are interesting to touch as a sensory exercise for a child – they can close their eyes and feel what is inside. I’ve also put brief reflective questions (“talk about a time you…” or “my favorite _____ is…”) on small pieces of paper inside, for the child to pick at random. It can also simply be used for storing markers, crayons, etc., and the child can help with decorating and with deciding on a creative use for it

7. Comic Strip. You can divide a piece of paper into four squares and encourage your child to tell a story as a 4-panel comic strip. One way to start is for the child to draw the first panel, and you can talk about where the story can go from there if the child needs support. This activity helps children to use words and images together while considering character traits, action, and maybe even a resolution of a conflict or challenge in a short format that’s fun. I’ve found that superheroes and fairy tale references are common. See where it takes them!

8. Alphabet Games. We went through some of our 5-year-old’s drawings, using some of them for an alphabet exercise. I helped her paste the appropriate letter on them (“F” for flower, for example). A brief scavenger hunt can be fun, too: “Find something in the living room that begins with ‘C’.”

9. Fun With Cardboard. Cereal boxes are especially popular in our household. You can open them for a drawing space. I also made a simple basketball goal out of a cereal box and a paper towel roll, and wrote “B”, “basketball” on it, also covering play moments #5 and #8. My cousin’s son made a “motivational robot”, on which it he wrote a reminder to go play outside. The possibilities are endless!

10. Free play. It’s also good to give our children some space to play on their own. This is where I get much of my “childhood education”, and I thank them for it!

Christopher Toller is father and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in North Carolina who has spent 12 years working with young people in a variety of settings.  He is also co-founder of a small non-profit, Aidan’s Angels, Inc., in honor of his late infant son (