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Connect, Regulate, and Teach Through Play

5 ways to harness the power of play to connect with your kids and help them regulate emotions

Jenny is overwhelmed, overtired, and overstimulated. Her toddler, three-year-old Jack, is loud and boisterous, and she can feel the heat rising in her face. She needs a break, and no one is at home to help her, so she says, “Hey Jack! Let’s play a game of hide and seek! Do you want to hide or do you want to seek?” Jack excitedly says, “I’ll hide!” and Jenny is rewarded with a few minutes of quiet solitude while she seeks Jack out, knowing he’s in his usual hiding place. “Oh Jack, where are you?” she calls, and she takes some calming breaths to steady herself. When she finds Jack a few minutes later, she’s feeling more centered. Now it’s her turn to hide!

Jenny used playfulness to get the small break she needed to regulate herself, and because she was playing with her son in the process, she strengthened their connection as well. It was a win-win! Playfulness is an invaluable parenting tool and life skill with many benefits. In our rushed and busy lives, we too often forget how to be playful and silly, and it can be difficult to find time to sit down and play. Just a few minutes a day can go a long way into strengthening our relationships with our kids!

Play affords us opportunities to deeply connect with our children, help them regulate their emotions, and to impart valuable lessons. Below I’ve outlined 5 ways that we can harness the power of play in each of these areas. 

3 Ways to Harness Play

Play To Connect

Play is a valuable way to connect with our children. We tend to think of play as pushing trains, playing Chutes and Ladders, or flying kites. This type of play is important, and research shows that parents who engage in physical or pretend play with their children have stronger bonds, but play can also be an attitude. Bringing fun, silliness, and lightheartedness to your child’s daily life builds a strong connection. You can use play to help you through your daily rhythms and routines. 

5 tips for connecting through play:

  1. Follow your child’s lead. Rather than trying to direct the play, just join in, mimic their movements, and let them guide you.
  2. Provide props, costumes, and materials such as paper towel tubes and cardboard boxes so that pretend play is encouraged, and then ask if you can join in on their adventures.
  3. If playing trains for the hundredth time doesn’t sound appealing to you, try putting a playful spin on some adult activities like painting pottery or baking a new brownie recipe.
  4. Switch up your play with a creative twist by making homemade bird feeders, learning to knit, finger painting, or doing a craft project together. 
  5. Take turns with your child making up a wildly imaginative story and act it out as you go, or choose a book to read aloud. Have you acted out a book like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt or Heart’s Treasure Hunt before?

Play To Regulate

Being playful can also help both you and your child regulate emotions. A 2019 study showed that parental playfulness was associated with increased emotion regulation and decreased anxiety levels. This clinical report from the Pediatrics says, “The mutual joy and shared communication and attunement (harmonious serve and return interactions) that parents and children can experience during play regulate the body’s stress response.”

When children focus their attention on play, their stress level begins to decrease and the brain starts to calm down and become regulated again. 

5 ways to help your child regulate their emotions through play:

  1. Teach the Breath of Fire. Have your child close their mouth, breathe in halfway, and then vigorously pump the air out again and again through the nose. This breath helps to bring lots of oxygen into the brain and balances the nervous system.
  2. Use a SnuggleBuddies plush to help children learn the emotions of happy, sad, calm, and mad/scared. Your child can use the cuddly toy to name and discuss their emotions which will help them calm down and get regulated.
  3. Using sensory play is a great calming exercise. Try playdough, scented rice, sand, or shaving cream play. 
  4. The My Feelings Card Set is another playful tool for emotional regulation. Children can use these cards to work through challenging moments.
  5. Inversion has a restorative effect on the autonomic nervous system, so do exercises such as a child’s pose from yoga or bending over to touch your toes. 

Regulating through play is one of the hallmarks of the Time-In Toolkit. With the ToolKit, children learn emotional skills with playful, evidence-based games and activities. 

Play To Teach

It is well known that children learn through play. According to The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard, “The ingredients of play are precisely the ones that fuel learning.” When children are actively and joyfully engaged in play, their brains are ready to receive, absorb, and retain information. 

5 Ways to Teach Through Play:

  1. Teach mindfulness to children with games such as the PeaceMakers cards
  2. Use role-playing to teach children what is expected in certain situations, such as a classroom or a doctor’s office, and how to handle specific scenarios like being bullied or comforting an upset friend. 
  3. Puppets are a fun way to teach valuable lessons. Putting on a puppet show will keep your child engaged and open to learning while you impart family values through dialogue. 
  4. Games like Musical Chairs help children learn patience and conflict resolution skills while Simon Says teaches them to pay close attention to instructions. Play these classic childhood games regularly with your child for fun and skill learning!
  5. Did you enjoy Monopoly and other board games as a child? They’re a fun way to spend time together as a family, but they also teach valuable lessons such as taking turns, counting, playing fair, and following the rules. 

Playfulness isn’t only a tool to keep in your parenting toolbox, it’s a mindset - one that will bring more joy, positivity, spontaneity, and fun to your ordinary days. While some people are naturally more playful, mindfully cultivating a playful lens and attitude benefits ourselves and our children immensely. 

I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote by author Réné Gaudette: “Playfulness, dear friends, is what manifests love. Love is not manifested through serious survivability, seriousness, stability. Love, the essence of love, manifests itself through playfulness.”

Teach children about their emotions in playful ways!

The Time-In ToolKit® playfully teaches kids 2-9+ how to navigate big emotions through social-emotional skill-building games. Created by child-development experts, your ToolKit includes everything you need to create your own Calming Corner and start taking Time-Ins instead of Time-Outs with your little ones.

The Time-In ToolKit
The Time-In ToolKit

The Time-In ToolKit


Developed by child-development experts, this toolkit provides step-by-step guidance for setting up a Time In Corner infused with strengths-based practic...