Different styles of play benefit children's growth

Lifting spirits: Fathers lift and bounce, and this makes their children smarter, stimulating brain neuron growth.

Mum’s play is gentle and face-to-face, dad’s play is physical and robust, but both serve crucial educational purposes, and create an emotionally balanced child.

MUMS and dads play differently with their children. If the two-year-old is being swung through the air to land on a pair of shoulders, it’s Dad who’s playing with him. If it’s peek-a-boo and nursery rhymes, Mum’s the playmate.

While there is an overlap, mothers tend to be quieter and reassuring; they’re more likely to sing, chat and tell stories, says Early Childhood Ireland CEO, Irene Gunning.

“Dads tend to be physically active in play — more piggybacks, raspberries and flying babies.

“Dads are more like a playground. Mums excel at the talking, rhymes, explaining, and intimate face-to-face interaction. Dad’s more shoulder to shoulder — he’s down on the floor, playing with trains and Lego. Mums do the table-top activities.”

Lisha O’Sullivan, lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Mary Immaculate College, says studies confirm the contrasting play styles of mums and dads.

“With babies, there’s a pattern of fathers engaging in physical play — bouncing, lifting and zooming baby through the air, moving his arms and legs. Dads do more rough-and-tumble play — they tend to encourage more risk-taking and experimenting. Mothers engage more in peek-a-boo, pat-a-cake and tickle games.”

Mums structure play to be more object-focused — on toys and play materials.

“They’re more likely to focus on academic content — if they’re using building blocks to play with the child, they might emphasise colours and counting. They’re also more likely to engage in pretend play, which helps children’s social regulation and literacy skills and is very useful for helping them to play competently with peers,” says Ms O’Sullivan.

More research is being done on the benefits of rough-and-tumble play.

“Mothers tend to stop roughhousing and horse-play, because they don’t want anyone getting hurt. But this kind of play makes children smarter, because it stimulates neuron growth within the brain. It supports memory and language learning and it builds emotional intelligence — children develop skills in reading emotions in the other,” Ms Gunning says.

It’s important that children understand touch that is affectionate, playful and fun, and recognise the difference between play and aggression.

“Dads are really good at knowing when to stop if the child oversteps the mark. The child begins to understand limits. This is where emotional intelligence begins — ‘I’ve gone too far’ or ‘I can push this a bit more’.”

Physical play is important because it’s unpredictable and exciting. It exercises children and encourages reciprocal role-taking, says Ms O’Sullivan.

“You might be the dominant one in this bout of rough-and-tumble, the other might be dominant in the next bout. You might be the chaser in one part of the game and, in the next, you might be the one being chased.”

Ms Gunning says the different play styles are summed up in two mutually supporting roles.

“Mum is all about helping the child feel safe and secure, and Dad is about opening him up to the challenge of the world”.

The contrasting styles aren’t absolute — some mums love physical play and dads also engage in quieter play. And the two share other approaches, says O’Sullivan. Both encourage infants to explore, and they both use shorter sentences and exaggerated speech with young children.

“They also demonstrate awareness of young children’s changing capabilities and play interests.”

Other factors impact, too, such as children’s personalities. “Some children may tolerate higher levels of novelty. With a more cautious child, a dad might engage in less physical play,” says Ms O’Sullivan.

Parents also play differently with girls or boys, says Kaye Cederman, lecturer in Trinity College’s Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies. She says both mothers and fathers are more accepting of girls playing with cars, trucks and soccer balls than they are of boys playing with ‘non-masculine toys’ — tea-sets, dress-ups, dolls. “Parents are much harder on boys in how they shape them to conform to the ‘boys’ toys’,” she says.

It’s important that children feel secure when playing with a parent. Children find it harder to explore when they don’t have an emotionally warm space, says Ms O’Sullivan.

“It’s important to be attuned to children’s needs and interests, rather than being intrusive in your interactions.”


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