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Beyond the Baby B's: Attachment Through Play

Nothing was easier, more intuitive for me than the Baby Bs: breastfeeding, babywearing, bedding with baby, and so on.  Attachment parenting an infant was simple. Keep that child close, and all is well.  But then what. When a child becomes mobile, become verbal, thing are suddenly so much more complicated. Sure, many of the principles of attachment parenting still apply, but they become a moving target...moving at the whirlwind speed of toddlers and preschoolers.

Research shows that I'm obviously not the only one that has struggled with this. In The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland explains:
Research shows that societies and families rich in warm physical affection have far fewer problems with anger and aggression, yet in some families there is a steep drop in cuddles and physically playful times after babyhood. This is followed by another steep drop after age five, and then another one when their children reach adolescence. There is a natural moving away from parent in adolescence, but this can start much earlier in parent-child relationships starved of physical attention.

A lot of people are fortunate enough to be able to stay home with their kids when they are young, but as a child gets older the chances of them being sent to day care or to school increases. There seems to be a diminished acceptance of physical closeness in those types of institutions, which means that children may go starved for true affection and connection for much of the day, making the time they do have with their parents all the more important for maintaining a strong connection and sense of security.

But they are busy.

Too busy to hug.

Too busy to cuddle.

Too busy to get lot in your eyes.

Too independent to hold your hand.

Too proud to cry on your shoulder.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Once our children leave the sling, the breast, and the family bed, one of the best ways that we can connect with them emotionally and physically is through play. This is the main premise of the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, that I'm going to post a review of in a few days. From the initial games of peek-a-boo, to hide and go seek, to tickle fights and roughhousing, from Barbie (yes Barbie) and guns (yes guns), there are ways that parents can use those games as opportunities to connect with their kids.

Two of the favourite connection games in our house right now are the tickle tunnel and running hug. In the tickle tunnel, I stand up and make a tunnel by spreading my legs apart. My kids run through the tunnel and get tickled on their way through. They scream with joy and it gives us a chance to connect. With the running hugs, tired Mommy sits on the floor after a long day at work and the kids come running at me from the other end of the hallway and crash into my arms with a big hug, sometimes knocking me over in the process. These types of games give them a chance to be active, but give us a chance to connect at the same time.

I think one of the intuitive mistakes parents often make (myself included sometimes) is to restrict play as a punishment for bad behaviour ("stop hitting your sister or we won't play ball later")  or to offer play as a reward ("sit still through dinner and we can play snakes and ladders before bed"). But what gets missed with those approaches is that the undesirable behaviour, the acting up, often comes from a lack of connecting play opportunities and if we remove even more play time as a repercussion of acting up, then the behaviour will only get worse, not better.You see, play gives children an opportunity to experience power, to build their confidence, to act out feelings, to connect, and to connect some more. Those are all things that will help them feel better about themselves and improve their behaviour.

My new motto: When in doubt, PLAY!

Cross-posted on API Speaks - The Blog of Attachment Parenting International.
« Fun & Games! Carnival Posts (Part 1) | Main | Time to Play! »

Reader Comments (23)

Amazing coincidence! I play "tunnel" with our twins nearly the same way as you do. Will add the tickle for sure. Also, a long hug and a gentle backrub is almost a ritual each night before putting them to bed.
There are many other games we have made up - kinda hard to describe. Good thing is that none of them involve fancy toys! Just us hugging, jumping and monkeying around for a little bit each day when my wife and I return from work.
We both work, and are usually quite tired. But I do agree with you that it is easy to find all kinds of excuses. So we try and in return we are hugely comforted by their giggles, laughter, cries, tantrums and all sorts of other tricks. What I want to point out is that play is equally important for Mom and Dad too.

April 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTwinToddlersDad

Great post!!!

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarla

Figuring out ways to AP, beyond gentle discipline, has been a question mark for us. Thanks for you post which have given me some food for thought. I'm not as "into" physical play -- I've never enjoyed rough-housing, even when I was a kid. But I have found myself playing 'horsie' with my 2.5 year old. He has learned to be more gentle with me and more rough with Dad!

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlina

My husband and daughter play the running hug game! It's so much fun and they both end up rolling around laughing and hugging.

The line "Too independent to hold your hand" caught my eye. My dad was visiting when Elli was born and we went for a walk. He wanted to hold Sammi's (2yo) hand. She absolutely refused and he looked a little sad. In a flash of insight I explained that Grandpa knew she was a big girl and could walk all by herself, but that he loves her and wanted to hold her hand for fun. She immediately held his hand for the rest of the walk. Now she'll initiate holding hands and it warms my heart!

Thanks for a great post.

I loved "Playful Parenting". We play a lot of 'power games' around here. I to goes something like, "You had better not, under any circumstances, jump up and down! I would be soooo mad if you jumped and down. Oh no! You're jumping up and down! Why? Why? WHYYYY?!?" All in a silly voice, and clearly for fun. I think it really helps my daughter to regain some sense of control and power, when I'm directing so much of her life.

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

Amazing post, I loved reading through this. I am a firm believer in attachment parenting; I slept with my first born son until our second baby was born. (In his room, most nights.) Then baby slept with us (hubby and I) in our room until he grew out of his co-sleeper and now he is in his own room. However, if he wakes up in the middle of the night, I bring him to my bed and sleep with him there while hubby goes and sleeps with our 3 year old. If 3 year old calls for me in the middle of the night, I go lie down with him. I don't beleive in cry it out. I find that my 3 and a half year old sometimes resists my hugs and kisses, not all the time, but sometimes... and that saddens me! I can't believe how fast they grow... I have never restricted play as a form of punishment. Heck, I can't even say 'no' to my children! But, I have said: "After dinner, we'll do this or this..."

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLoukia

What a great post.

With my 2.5 year old we do a lot of that kind of play - through the tunnel, 'chase', rolling around, horsey (I'm the horse) and super-kid where we lift him on his belly on our knees and hum the superman song. He roars with excitement. Even my husband has some special games like this - at bedtime, they do 'IN' where they go under the covers and pretend to hide from me, or tickle each other etc.

You're right, play is just supposed to be about being a kid. Thanks for writing about a fantastic topic.

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

[...] play to connect with her child. This is a great companion piece to the one I wrote yesterday about Attachment through Play. Maria says when she thought about how she wanted to play with her child, she knew she wanted to be [...]

I read this one with my hubby, then afterwards we went and played tickle tunnel, torpedo toddler and monster mommy. It was a great start to our day! Thanks for the reminder about this. It can get so easy to get caught up in the day to day.

April 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMelodie

I don't think I'll ever lose the desire to cuddle and be affectionate with my little one. We are big on tickle time and at 22 months, she will even lie down and say 'tickle tickle!' until I oblige. Fantastic post - we'll give tickle tunnel a try tomorrow!

April 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterH.E.Eigler

Thanks for this - good food for future thoughts.

After my daughter unexpectedly weaned, I definitely felt the loss of the automatic physical connection provided by breastfeeding. It was hard to bear until I realised what was making me feel disconnected in that way and so I built more touchy-feely time into our day and it did help a lot. I massage her more often now, and started wearing her again (even though Miss Independent will only tolerate it for shortish periods these days). Her father and I both have our special ways of giving her kisses and snuggles and that's a nice for us to bond in our individual ways too. I can't imagine ever being able to refrain from holding her and breathing in her deliciousness but I suppose it is all too easy to fall into socially-imposed patterns of intimacy withdrawal with time. Play sounds like a great way to keep close.

April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSpilt Milk

[...] so play is fun. Play creates attachment. Play makes us smart. But what are some of the physical health benefits of play? What are the [...]

[...] goodbye to boredom? Start by fostering a strong attachment, much of which can come from play (see Beyond the Baby B’s: Attachment Through Play). But what to play? Parents are not all entertainment experts and we can often run out of ideas. It [...]

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter“Mommy, I’m Bored&

[...] Beyond the Baby B’s: Attachment Through Play: A post on using play to stay connected with your kids. [...]

[...] Attachment parenting is not just for babies, but it does evolve as your kids grow older. [...]

[...] Using play to connect with kids. Once they wean from the breast and grow out of the sling especially, we need to use play to keep a strong connection. I wrote more about this in Beyond the Baby B’s: Attachment Through Play. [...]

So much truth in your post and I really appreciate the insight that "acting up" occurs when they haven't had enough playful connection!

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWrap Your Baby

just when I started to think I play too much with my 2.5 yr old, along comes this great reminder about how important play is. Thanks!

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercarolb

Good reminder. I have this book but haven't opened it. I will look at it. I fear the drop-off when my little boy doesn't want to cuddle with me anymore. Wah!

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRookieMom Whitney

My daughter is now almost 21 months old..& we have a special time every night after dinner where my husband & I sit on opposite sides of the living room & play ball w/ our daughter. Half of the time she just runs back & forth between us dive bombing us w/ hugs & getting tickles ..It's one of the best parts of my day..
Every night I think ..how long will she want to play like this w/ us? It's going to break my heart when she gets too big/ too cool for mom & dad !

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

[...] Beyond The Baby B’s:Attachment Through Play via PhD in Parenting “Once our children leave the sling, the breast, and the family bed, one of the best ways that we can connect with them emotionally and physically is through play.”            ~Extra! Extra! Extra! of the week~      [...]

My 23 month old has been really into "running hugs" lately. I love the tickle tunnel idea i will have to give that a try!

I can understand your problems regarding breastfeeding, baby wearing, bedding with baby as so on. It is not only your problem rather than it is the basic problem of all new parents. When we have our first baby we can't understand what to do. It is the primary responsibility of all parents to take care of their babies and give then a good life. So they go foe different sources especially experienced one, internet, books and magazines etc to collect information about all these. Taking care of a baby is really a difficult thing but we can make it easy by following easiest tips.

September 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJerry

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