Playful Parenting with Older Children and Teens

By Kelly Bartlett, certified positive discipline educator and attachment parenting leader (API of Portland, Oregon USA)

Young children play effortlessly. Kids are naturally predisposed to play, and it doesn’t take much to engage a child in a silly game or role-play. Through play, kids express feelings, needs, thoughts, and ideas that they might not yet have the words to articulate. Playing together lets parents connect and communicate with kids beyond a conversation and provides insight into their world.

But how does playtime change as kids get older? How can parents adapt their approach to playful parenting after kids outgrow the desire to get silly, wrestle, and pretend? How can we achieve the same results with our teenagers that we can by playing “tickle monster” with our toddlers?

Emily Troper is an early childhood educator, a founder of Continuum Learning Community in Portland, Oregon USA, and an attached mom who says that play is a big part of her family’s life. Troper has four children ages 6 to 19, and though she says it can be difficult to find ways to play that suit all of her kids, it is important enough to continue to try. Troper shares some of her family’s insights on how they continue to play together and what playtime looks like in a house with teenagers.

Physical Play

Physical games don’t lose their appeal for kids, but they do become more organized. While young children enjoy the rough-and-tumble play of wrestling, tackling, being tossed, rolled, or carried, older children (and their developing logical brains) enjoy sports, games, and other organized activities. Basketball, golf, tennis, jogging, even air hockey or table soccer all release endorphins and cause players to experience a shared, “feel-good” moment.
Interactive physical activity provides emotionally connecting experiences for parents and kids.

Troper says that despite her children’s wide range of ages, they have discovered several games that they all enjoy. She says, “We love the sock game from Larry Cohen’s book [Playful Parenting]. Everyone wears socks and sits on the floor. When we say ‘Go!’ we try to get off the other family members’ socks but keep our own on.” Their family also loves driving go-carts and playing Ping-Pong together.

Verbal Play

As children grow and their brains and language become more developed, jokes are a great way to stay connected. Jokes are interactive, and they keep us thinking and laughing together. A funny joke activates many areas of the brain and releases endorphins when we “get it” and find the humor in it. For Troper’s family, play has become much more verbal as her children have grown older, with mealtimes becoming a new kind of playtime. She says, “We often share funny stories at the dinner table and have a long history of inside jokes.”

Fun Stuff

Besides finding games that the whole family can do together, Troper says it’s equally important to have fun with each of her kids individually. She recommends joining kids in whatever they’re interested. “With my oldest son, we enjoyed watching comedy shows after the younger ones were sleeping and laughing our heads off together.” Whether the activity is playing cards or board games, listening to music, building Legos, or playing laser tag, sharing regular, enjoyable one-on-one time helps parents stay in-tune with their child’s interests and keeps their connection strong.

A Listening Tool

In the early years, play helps express a child’s feelings and is an avenue for parent-child communication. According to Troper, this did not change much as her kids have grown older and outgrown the creative play of early childhood. For her teenagers, playful, enjoyable moments continue to be opportunities for listening to find out what her children might be feeling and needing. She says, “With my oldest son, the pre-teen years were filled with being in the car together in the morning and afternoon. We listened to the music he wanted to listen to and talked about it. It was light and fun, but every so often, deeper subjects would come up and it was a safe space to talk.”

Although parents may not share all of their kids’ interests, taking the time to understand and get involved in them inevitably leads to talking, connecting, and building a trusting relationship. The games may change as kids get older, but the enjoyment of playtime doesn’t end in early childhood. Tweens and teens still like to have fun. They still like to laugh. They still express themselves through their interests. No matter how playtime has evolved, parents can use it as an opportunity to get and stay close to their growing children.

5 thoughts on “Playful Parenting with Older Children and Teens”

  1. I am very happy to see another article on here about AP with teens, but as an expert on AP with teens, I disagree with your statement that teens do not enjoy pretend play and wrestling with parents. Please be aware that children in public school are socialized very different than those of us parents who AP through the teen years and unschool. Teens who are AP-ed and learn through more natural means such as unschooling, relaxed homeschooling and democratic schools are intensly playful. My 17 year old son and his friends live for pretend and dramatic play, which they call role play and LARP-ing (Live Action Role Play). My son loves wrestling, cuddling and tickle-fighting with me. My son is constantly inventing games for us to play together or with his friends and he still, like a lot of his friends, loves toys. Still, I applaud your article for bringing very needed attention to the attachment needs of teens and for promoting parent-child play with teens!

  2. As my daughter has entered her teen years I agree that the verbal play has become a huge way that we interact. It has also been a way to connect with her friends and other teens through intellectual play.

    My daughter has also been in the public education system, first at a public Montessori school and now at a school for the Arts. As a junior high creative writing major she has the ability to explore many art forms and create with other teens from dance, vocal, to orchestra. I think there are many opportunities for all children, regardless of what “fits” their individual education needs, to explore their fictional creativity. They may no longer want to refer to it as playing pretend but it is the teen version of such and it is a great outlet for emotions, intellect, and thinking about their future.

  3. I agree it’s nice to find some “AP” stuff that is not just about babies and toddlers! My kids are 6 and 12 now, and parenting is necessarily different, but I still want to stay attached. I do think being attached when they were younger (in spite of my working outside the home) has made our relationships stronger, especially noticeable w/my older one.

  4. Yes, yes, yes. So very important to play with our teens. Just as life is becoming more serious for them, and our interactions with them have a tendency towards being more serious, how very important to keep an element of play going. It can also be a way of staying physically in touch – if they pull away from cuddles they may be more comfortable with a tussle. What’s more, I’ve found teenagers have a great deal in common with toddlers – they seem to share many qualities of oscillating between being ‘big’ and being ‘little’ – and this includes their sense of playfulness. I am passionate about remembering to treat teenagers’ need for attachment with the same care as we do our toddlers

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