Using Play to Increase Your Child’s Cooperation

If you’ve noticed that specific times of the day are harder for your child than other times, know that it’s super common. In fact, when I’m working with parents, I often ask this question, because consistent patterns can give us a lot of information about the needs and difficulties a kid is experiencing!

If a child struggles with the same aspects of the family routine most days, it frequently helps to make small changes in order to prevent meltdowns or defiance, rather than waiting until things are chaotic and then trying to intervene. Some common changes I encourage parents to consider include:

  • Changing the order in which things are done
  • Giving lots of warning about upcoming transitions
  • Analyzing whether rules or expectations are developmentally appropriate (e.g. – are you expecting too much from your child depending on their age?)
  • Incorporating playfulness

This post focuses on that latter point. Play engages kids in the activity more, and also improves connection with you – both of which make them feel more capable and more willing to cooperate. Fortunately, there are TONS of ways to entice and connect with kids while also completing necessary tasks. Of course, it may not be possible to include these ideas daily, and that’s okay. Do what you can, and see if it makes a difference in your child’s behavior.

Tough Time: Meals

Playful Ideas:

  • Cut food into fun shapes
  • Involve kids in fun food prep – peeling hard boiled eggs or oranges, snapping beans, forming meatballs, etc
  • Tell stories
  • Play simple games (e.g. I Spy or Would You Rather)
  • Play music
  • Eat dinner by candlelight
  • Eat outdoors
  • Kids LOVE to sprinkle things on food, and there are lots of ideas for this: dust cinnamon on toast, sunflower seeds on salad or roasted veggies, cheese on pasta, colorful sprinkles on yogurt, etc

Tough Time: Brushing Teeth

Playful ideas:

  • Consider brushing yours at the same time! Sometimes, making it a shared activity increases the enjoyment for children.
  • Give them a tongue twister to say while the toothbrush is in their mouth.
  • Hum a song and see if your child can guess what it is (and then take turns)
  • Pretend to be the germs on your child’s teeth and use funny voices or pretend cries as “you” are brushed away from their teeth
  • Play a song your child likes and let them groove while they brush. No putting the toothbrush down until the song is over!

Tough Time: Bedtime

Playful Ideas:

  • Let little ones put their own “baby” to bed first (Example: “Let’s find a comfy spot for Koala to sleep. Do you want to cover her with a blankie? Night, night Koala!”)
  • Sing (or play) a special song together. Doing the same one each night provides consistency and seucirty for kids
  • Do gentle relaxation stretches together.
  • Read a story
  • Make up a story and involve your child on adding details (Example: “The dinosaur entered the forest and met a _______ – what animal should the dinosaur meet??”)
  • Give them a little foot or hand massage

Tough Time: Mornings Before School

Playful ideas:

  • Upon waking, spend a minute cuddling in bed (and chatting if your child is up for it)
  • Play their favorite songs and sing/dance your way through the routine
  • Try something new: hairstyle? Outfit? Breakfast?
  • Give silly challenges (Example: “Can you hop like a kangaroo to get your backpack?”)
  • Talk in funny accents from the moment they wake up until drop off
  • Play simple games at breakfast (e.g., I Spy or Would You Rather)
  • Challenge your child to complete the morning routine as fast as they can! See if they can beat their score the next morning.

Tough Time: School Drop-Off

Playful Ideas:

  • In the car ride (or walk) over, avoid lectures on school behavior or academics. Keep the journey enjoyable by listening to music, playing simple games, etc
  • Have a goodbye ritual, like a secret handshake or silly phrase (Example: “Bye now, brown cow!”
  • If your littles have a particularly tough time separating, try this: at another time of day, use toys or stuffies to act out your family’s drop-off process. Have characters name real feelings (nervous, sad, etc), but also identify positives of school (seeing friends, etc)

Tough Time: Chores

Playful ideas:

  • Speed race: time your child to see how quickly they can get dirty laundry from their bedroom to the washer!
  • Clean while dancing and singing to music. (Or periodically pause the music and everyone has to freeze!)
  • Clean mirrors (or other surfaces) with a foaming cleanswer. Let them make little shapes and designs as they wipe it off.
  • Offer physical challenges: complete chore using one hand, standing on one leg, while wearing oven mitts, walking backwards, etc

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