Many of us find the demands of family life daunting and overwhelming. The task of raising children is not easy and the stakes are high. Here, Amber Hatch explains how mindfulness can enhance our playtime and help foster a deeper connection…
Amber Hatch is a writer, teacher, parent-of-three and a registered childminder living in Oxford. She has been practising Buddhist meditation for seven years helping to run family retreats and a meditation class for parents and children. She published Nappy Free Baby in 2015 and also two mindful colouring books with her illustrator husband Alex Ogg.
Mindfulness has become so popular these days that most people are aware of the benefits. When we practice mindfulness we are more able to stay calm, find ourselves less stressed and we can make conscious decisions about the way we act.
But what can it specifically bring to parents? Mindfulness can be used as a resource in many different areas of parenting, but perhaps the most important thing about parenting with mindfulness is the depth of the connection forged between you and your child during mindful moments.
These can also be moments of “shared attention”, which research shows is fundamental to children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Joining our children in play is one of the easiest and most obvious ways to experience this shared attention.
There are many different theories about the best ways to spend time with children. Some people stress the importance of quality time with their children – perhaps earmarking specific periods in the week for playing and being together. Others rate quantity more highly – considering parental availability to be the most important thing – even when parents don’t necessarily have their full attention on their child. Some people provide a very child-centred environment, where the activities of the day revolve around the child’s interests, while others prefer to ‘bring their children along’ in a more adult environment.
Of course, all of these different approaches to parenting will influence the way the child grows and develops. But there is no one right way to do things. I would go so far as to say that strict adherence to any one specific child-rearing philosophy could leave you in danger of missing the reality of what your child needs at this moment.
Mindful connection with your child is a very important part of discerning those needs. And engaging with your child in play is an excellent way to establish that connection. Whether that’s for a prolonged period a couple of times a week, or simply a few seconds of exchange many times a day, these moments of connection allow us to really experience the world from our children’s perspective. When we allow ourselves to be drawn into our children’s fantasy worlds, we are being given an opportunity to glimpse into their inner world. Through play, children explore their fears and frustrations, and their triumphs and desires.
When we bring mindfulness to our playtime with our children, we make a commitment to staying with their game. When we notice our attention wandering off to the next set of chores we need to do, we can choose to bring our attention back to the matter at hand. Instead of resenting the activity, or feeling bored or frustrated, we can allow ourselves to settle into the game and begin to enjoy it. Without mindfulness, we may not even be aware that our attention has wandered, and we may not be aware that this very moment is providing us with the potential to re-establish a bond with our child.
Sometimes it is necessary to put aside playtime and instead do chores and work. But at other times we persuade ourselves that those things are top priority, not realising that they have become a way to avoid being in the moment with our children.
Making time to be mindful and connect with our children is actually one of the most important jobs we can do, yet sometimes it slips down to the bottom of the list, especially once our children are out of the very needy baby and toddler stage. As they get older, we welcome the fact that they don’t need us quite so much, but at times this goes too far. We get used to them playing more independently and we resent it when they do ask us for attention. Also, we can forget to build in opportunities for reconnection.
Five tips for mindfulness in play
- Earmark certain times in the day (e.g. bathtime) when you can fully commit to playing. “Attach” mindfulness to the activity, so it becomes a mindfulness practice in itself. Whenever you notice your attention wandering, bring it back to the play.
2. Check that the play is self-directed. Is your child leading the play, or are you? Self-directed play – that is, playing without interference, empowers children to navigate the world with confidence and joy.
3. Build playtime into your everyday routines, for example leave enough time for looking down drains when you do the school run.
4. If you find yourself being distracted by the chores at home, or by your phone or tablet, then take your playtime outside and into nature, where it is easier to let go of distractions and throw yourself into your child’s world.
5. Playing mindfully with your children can be among the most precious moments of parenthood. Make sure you are present while you do it, and create some lasting memories for both you and your children.
Mindfulness For Parents by Amber Hatch is published in paperback by Watkins priced £9.99 and includes tons of practical information alongside anecdotes, tips and insights that will help any parent achieve a calmer, more relaxed family life.