When I started school, I was pretty unpopular.
I was a chubby little cherub with a bowl haircut who liked drama and could barely kick a football, but by the time I graduated I was one of the most popular kids in school.
I was never especially gregarious, rebellious or good looking; I was popular because over the years I’d been playmates with nearly everybody in my 50 person year group, and play was something I was really good at.
I was fun and spontaneous, and through play, I became increasingly creative, funny, generous and empathetic. Kids liked playing with me. Once they’d given me a chance they grew to like me for who I was, and how I made them feel.
That’s the kind of foundation that self-worth, self-confidence and healthy, life-long relationships can be built on.
Be fun to be around
It was an odd set of innate and learned abilities that made me fun. I knew how play, and that meant different things when I was four, than when I was sixteen, than it does now that I’m in my mid-thirties, but the mechanics are just the same.
Before I share those mechanics with you, I want to do a little to explain why play is central to my sense of self.
The dad I wanted
There’s a scene in Mrs. Doubtfire where Robin William’s character plays with his children. They all dress up in suits of armor made out of trash cans with bin lids for shields and broom handles for swords and have a crazy-good time.
To my twelve-year-old mind that was the epitome of a good dad.
My parents were divorced and my dad lived about four hours away. He tried his best, but I only saw him a few times a year. Things were always complicated between him and my older brother, who felt abandoned.
There wasn’t a lot of room for play.
In Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams was the dad I decided I would be: riotously good fun; puts his children above everything else; would dress as a woman and take a job as a house keeper just to be around them. A father who wouldn’t accept divorce.
Of course, knowing how to play with your kids doesn’t make you a good father or husband (which is the point of Mrs. Doubtfire), but for my money there’s no quicker way into the hearts and minds of your children and spouse.
The dad I am
I’m the dad being chased around the playground by a dozen kids who’ve all joined the game of superheroes I started with my son, working them into a frenzy.
And, to my shame, I’m the dad who hurts his friends’ feelings when their children want to play with me rather than play with them. Or worse, when I play with my friends’ children in a way they’ve never been able to.
So what makes me a good play mate? What are the mechanics, and can they be learned? Yes, I believe so.
To really play with kids:
- Let go of your inhibitions
- Be fully present
- Actively Listen
- Don’t block
- Say “Yes, And”
- Be a team player
- Build trust
- Commit to, and develop, your character
As an adult, you’ll bring particular value if you also:
- Help craft satisfying stories
- Work in themes, morals or lessons
That may seem like a long list, and if this stuff doesn’t come easy to you, it will take some practice. Don’t underestimate how much. As easy as play looks, good play is anything but mindless. It requires presence of mind, something we’re often loath to give to something as frivolous as play. But play is how children learn. It’s their work.
Take the bullet
Once you’re doing all of the above, when a kid shoots at you, you’ll dodge the bullet as though it were real, and you’ll instantly capture their imagination.
They’ll have found something they long for, a big kid with the power to suspend their reality.
And they’ll come after you with everything they’ve got, guns blazing until they plug you full of holes and you collapse, and maybe cough up a bullet.
You’ll lay still for a moment, and then maybe you’ll come back from the dead as a zombie. They’ll panic and keep firing, but the bullets no longer work, they barely slow you down. A little scared, they’ll need to think on their feet, to improvise. How can they stop you?
You’ll be working together: acting, storytelling, listening, empathizing, bonding and playing together.
Whatever happens next, you’ll have a blast. And you’ll have them, one hundred percent.