The power of a father’s time
It almost sounds counter-intuitive that we have to justify and consciously prioritise that which should come naturally: to play with our kids. My 3-year old son is mostly the initiator (read insistent instigator) of rough-and-tumble play. We all instinctively know the value of play, and that’s because our brains are wired to play. In 1998 Jaak Panksepp, the Estonian neuroscientist and psychobiologist, found that play is an innate system of the brains of mammals. This system is as distinct in its wiring as all the other systems like the fear, care or lust systems. He describes this play system as our instinctive behaviour to engage in boisterous joyousness of rough-and-tumble playfulness. All these brain systems help us adapt and survive in our environments and have strong developmental purpose.
Rough and tumble play serves as a great learning opportunity for all of us: we develop emotional regulation when allowed to be chaotic and there are many other byproducts (e.g. cognitive, emotional and physical development) as a result of rough and tumble play. For adults it’s an invitation and opportunity to serve a play purpose and reconnect with a far too often neglected aspect of our human existence. Body play, that desire to be free of gravity, simply makes you feel better.
Play requires safe exploration and when this is rushed or when a dad is impatient, safety is removed. A child is very adept at sensing whether or not a parent is engaged, or otherwise distracted. They know when you just want to get back behind your laptop or make that business phone call. Curiosity is part-and-parcel of play, and the child looks curiously for the response in the father’s eye. If you can allow yourself to be curious of where your child is going, and stay present with them, you can reap the rewards of a deeper connection and trust. The basis of human trust is established through play signals, which we progressively lose as adults, unless we re-engage.
Every opportunity to play should be embraced, and when fathers heed the call, and become a playmate who is present and engaged, a richer life is created for both.