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When 'Leave me alone' means 'Play with me'

Published on: December 01, 2009

It seems that as soon as a child can string a few words together, the plea “Play with me” becomes a regular part of their vocabulary. As parents, we happily oblige, graduating from peekaboo to hide-and-seek as our children grow. But when the tween years arrive, “Play with me” is often replaced with “Give me a ride!” SleddingParents are no longer looked upon as playmates, and kids spend their time online, texting and chatting with friends. It’s easy to succumb and leave them to their own devices — literally! — but should you?

No, say the experts, who point out that the number-one thing kids of all ages need from their parents is their time and attention — especially the kind that comes through play.

“Fun is the grease that gets families through the unavoidable friction of daily life,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who offers parents advice on her Web site “Playing together is an almost magical way to build connection. It’s one of the fastest ways to heal bad moods and minor relationship stress. Playfulness elicits cooperation from even the most recalcitrant tween or teen.

“Research certainly shows that the closer tweens and teens are to their parents, the healthier they are in every way, including better self-esteem, delayed sexual exploration, avoiding drug use, doing better in school and being happier.”

But there’s more in it for kids than family bonding. “Play is also the foundation for social skill development,” says Lynne Kenney, Psy.D., author of The Family Coach Method. “Playing sports and games with your children is how you teach them to be good sports, to accept losing politely, to win graciously and to build their confidence through skill development.”

How to play
Playing with tweens and teens can be tricky. Few parents would think of trouncing their 5-year-old at T-ball, but the competition often heats up once the child gets older — and bigger. Experts suggest that whenever possible, parents keep the focus on play that is open-ended rather than competitive — inclusive rather than exclusive.

“Competition itself is not bad, but valuing winning above the connection and fun is,” says Markham, and adds that opponents should be well-matched, even if it means handicapping adults or older siblings.

A recent episode of the ABC comedy “Modern Family” featured a father who spoke fondly of “shooting hoops” with his young son. But the video showed him demoralizing the child by making one basket after another without ever giving the son a chance to score — funny on television. In real life? Not so much.

Whatever the form of play a family chooses, it should be positive, age appropriate and, above all, fun. Kids this age get turned off the instant they detect a “teachable moment.” And play time can quickly turn into an ordeal if the play is beyond children’s abilities. A difficult hike can be viewed as drudgery in the eyes of a sedentary teen; that black-diamond run can turn a novice skier into a snow-sports hater.

Fun and games
Many child development experts sing the praises of a family game night. Turn off the television and play board or card games that focus on fun rather than competition.

The Louie family of South Seattle engages in everything from Uno and Taboo to “silly card games” like spoons. The Long family in Shoreline prefers Apples to Apples and Sorry. Games like Guesstures and Pictionary can stimulate conversation, something that’s often difficult between parents and older kids. Word-based games, like Quiddler and Scrabble, can help kids build their vocabularies; and strategy games, like Winds of Fortune and Battleship, help build reasoning skills.

A simple deck of cards is an inexpensive and portable way to engage in family fun: “go fish” for little kids, gin rummy and even poker for those tweens and teens (for fun, not money, of course!).

Families lucky enough to have the space can enjoy games like pool and ping pong. West Seattle mom Cynthia Voth says her kids love ping pong and “will play indefinitely,” and that their dog even gets in on the action by running circles around the table.

And then there’s the Wii, which, at its best, combines family bonding with tween tech appeal (try Wii Fit and Wii Sports Resort). Or hunker down in front of the Xbox to race around tracks or defeat alien invaders.

Get outside
Snow play makes for great family fun — and you don’t have to spend a lot to do it. If downhill skiing and snowboarding are out of your budget’s reach, try tubing, sledding or snowshoeing. For the athletically inclined, try tennis, touch football or other ball-based games — or one of our area’s many indoor rock climbing gyms, which offer a great way to stay in shape, with a high teen “cool” quotient. Or go for culture and get the family out to a play, a museum, or Seattle’s EMP|SFM.

The Sechrist family of Enumclaw belongs to a square dancing club; they dance at least three times a month. Musically inclined families can have impromptu jam sessions; others attend themed conventions like Comic-Con and Sakura-Con together. Whatever you do, the point is to do it together as a family. Your tween or teen may resist at first, but persist. You’ll be sending them the strong message that they’re still an important part of their family and building connections that will remain intact even after they fly the nest.

Andrea Leigh Ptak is a South Seattle writer and graphic designer who enjoys hiking and attending the theater with her 14-year-old daughter.

Resources: Fun and games for tweens and teens

Board games for teenagers lists and gives descriptions of various games, including some old standards like “Clue,” and newer games like “American Idol All Star DVD Challenge.”

Tips for planning a fun family game night are here.

The official site for Cranium games for families with older kids (8+).

eHow gives great ideas for games to play with teens that do not require the purchase of a special product.

Resources for indoor sports for tweens & teens:

Indoor Rock Climbing:
Stone Gardens Gym
2839 NW Market St
Seattle, WA 98107-4215
(206) 781-9828
Vertical World
Four Locations:
Seattle, Redmond, Bremerton, Everett

A Web site devoted to indoor rock climbing in Washington State

Mini Mountain 425 746-7547
1900 132nd Ave. N.E.
 Bellevue. Also has indoor ski/snow boarding and year-round batting cage.

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