Playing with our Three-Year-Old

Hello! Our three and a quarter year old does not go to daycare and has only been with family. She has always enjoyed both playing with us and playing on her own. Recently we have found that she is asking us to play with her more and more. Sometimes the request sounds more like an order, “do a puppet show, mama”, and this many times a day. We are often unable to meet her requests, and find ourselves saying no to her. We also have a ten month old baby, whom she absolutely adores, if that is helpful information. You once did a teleclass on “how not to be your child’s play slave”, so we thought you may have some insight to share! Thank you kindly, Anna PS: Please do not use my family name in your reply, or on the website. Thanks!

Dear Anna,

It sounds to me like you have become your daughter’s entertainer. Whether a live show or a TV, a child can become dependent and passive. Puppet show is wonderful when it is created by the child. I suggest that you be the audience, and let your daughter do the puppet show. If she is not interested, maybe let go of puppet shows for now. 

Another way a child can become dependent on adults for play is when you become her playmate. I have not yet met a mother who loves to be the pony in her child’s story, or be the pretend ghost or fairy. Most of us don’t enjoy playing such children’s games. Be authentic; choose activities you actually enjoy, and let her lead the way. She can play imaginary games by herself or with another child.

For example, I always enjoyed reading books to my children, playing ball, going for walks, dancing, playing music or, at later ages, playing some board games. In terms of entertainment, the children always did the show and we were the audience. They danced, acted and played music. Another way I provided attention was to watch them play. I would sit outside while a child was playing in the sand or inside while he was doing art or building from blocks. I would usually do some reading and writing while responding to, “watch me mom,” with the attention the child needed.

Think of what it is you do enjoy doing with your daughter and tell her the truth, “I don’t like playing pretend games, but I love reading to you and watching you dance.” In addition, cultivate doing things side by side. You can plant flowers while she digs in the sand next to you or, you make a salad while she paints at the kitchen table. Make sure to make these experiences short enough that she enjoys herself to the end.

Another reason a child would need you as a play mate all the time is when she has a sense that you would rather not play with her. Too many, “Just a minute,” “a little later,” and “let me just finish this…” leave the child yearning for you and feeling like she never gets enough attention. Make sure your time together is satisfying, focused and without interruptions, as much as possible. When she is done playing by herself, don’t try to fit in just another chore, keeping her anxiously waiting. If she interrupts you, be willing to stop your activity and show your delight in doing something you both enjoy. 

Keep in mind that in just a few years you will be pleading with your child to spend some time with you. Enjoy the years that she is the one asking for it.

Warmly,  Naomi Aldort,


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