Oregon State researchers aim to make parenting more playful

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
July 20, 2023 3:11 p.m. Updated: July 21, 2023 12:46 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, July 21

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For years, researchers have shown that play is an important part of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. It can help children master new skills, build confidence, spark creativity, along with other positive effects. But less attention has been given to how parents and caregivers also benefit from play. Researchers at Oregon State University aim to change that by using a national grant they were recently awarded to develop a program for parents and caregivers to more easily and sustainably engage in play with their kids. Xiangyou (Sharon) Shen is an assistant professor in leisure, environment and health in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. Shauna Tominey is an associate professor of human development and family sciences at OSU. They join us to talk about making parenting more playful.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with playfulness. For years, researchers have shown that play is an important part of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. It can help children master new skills, build confidence and spark creativity. Less attention has been given to how parents or caregivers also benefit from play. Researchers at Oregon State University aim to change that. They got a grant recently to create a program to help parents or caregivers more easily engage in play with their kids. Xiangyou (Sharon) Shen is an assistant professor who focuses on the science of play at Oregon State University. Shauna Tominey is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at OSU. They both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Xiangyou (Sharon) Shen: Thank you for having us, Dave.

Miller: So, Shauna first, I think most parents of young kids or kids of any age know that play is good for them and good for the family. What can an academic intervention add?

Shauna Tominey: Oh my goodness. That is such a great point. We all know play is fun, play is enjoyable. Play helps children develop those social emotional skills. And as I’m sure you’ll hear from Sharon later, too, there are so many benefits of play for parents and families themselves. One of the things that we need to realize is that not all families have access to play in the same way. And sometimes parents need just a reminder or even permission to say it’s ok with all of these competing demands in our lives to step back and have these moments of joy with our children.

Many parents know how to do that or have that sense that they want to do that with their children and yet with the competing demands that we have with technology coming into play in different ways in our lives, taking that time to really step back and be present with our children is so beneficial both for them and for us. So we’re really excited to be able to meet families where they are at this time and especially in hearing how stressed families have been feeling these last few years and really helping rekindle that joy of play.

Miller: Sharon Shen, what do you mean as an academic when you say play?

Shen: Well, they are like we said, this is a million dollar question because if you ask a different researcher, they may come up with a different definition. But when we do study, often we actually treat the play as something that lay people can easily recognize. That’s why when we are asking parents, they can actually talk about play without you needing to explicitly define it, but we do measure play, we measure playfulness. So we have to operationalize the definition of play. So when we are actually talking about the play other than play-like activity, we are talking about the play that gives people the opportunity to be really engaged, be active and to experience the positive emotions that often comes with play.

Miller: I have to say that being able to quantify and measure play seems like a very not playful activity.

Shen: [Laughter] Yes. That’s why when we are talking about imaginative play, we are really not just counting the frequency of play, counting what type of play behavior you engage in, we are also talking about the experiential quality of the play experience and what people experience in that process, what kind of transformations that take place when they are playing.

Miller: Shauna Tominey, are some forms of play better than others in terms of child or just even sort of family system development?

Tominey: That’s a tricky question, right, to label some play as better or worse than others. We could connect it to different kinds of play, to different outcomes or different kinds of play, to having different kinds of impacts on children and families because when we think about that there are a lot of different kinds of play. And play looks different based on families, on cultures, on their expectations for play. For some, play can be sitting on the floor and really actively engaging with whether it’s toys or sitting down with a bowl and spoons from the kitchen and making believing or even these playful interactive actions during running errands or cooking food together in the kitchen, play can look like many different things.

So I think it’s challenging to label one form of play as better than another.

What we do know is, as Sharon was saying, that what happens in those interactions matters a lot to how that play impacts both the child and the parent. So if a parent is feeling like, “OK, just take this box of blocks and just do what you can right now” because I have to juggle so many other things in my life, so I’m keeping an eye on my child while they are playing versus sitting down and taking a moment to say, “I see you, I want to do what you’re doing.” I’m really interested in what you’re doing. I’m gonna just even take a breath for two minutes and engage in that play with you.


Miller: But even your tone of voice that felt very much like something I think a lot of parents can relate to that. When you break down to two minutes, maybe my question that I’m about to ask you is answered. But, still even carving out two minutes can feel impossible if not just a question of the time but if you feel frazzled and at your wit’s end as a parent, how do you go past that and then just sit down and play when it actually is the last thing you want to do or feel capable of doing at that moment?

Shen: That is a really good question. So, in our pilot study, we developed this set of a playbook that includes resources and the strategies that parents can take so they can actually incorporate more smoothly duties of play in their life. So we have activity-based strategy, we have time-based strategy, we have people-based strategy. Take the example, Dave, you said, when you have to rush to get things done or settle your kids up so they can do their homework or do their other activities so you can go back to your work or go back to your conference call, right?

So we have these strategies where we can build the play or nest our play in the daily tasks, like doing laundry, doing dishes or even cooking, asking the kids to pick up the laundry in the rainbow color order or asking them to close their eyes, give them a piece of laundry and ask them to guess what piece of clothes it is, So that we are playing with our kids while we are doing that, but we also get our housework done.

Miller: It seems like that’s an important point there that, that you’re often, it seems, not talking about necessarily structured games that have their own rules but a more general abstract playfulness that can be woven into our lives.

Shen: That’s exactly it. And with children, they are good with the structure of the games. They often also offer opportunities for them to develop, but free play is even a more powerful form of play that allows children to engage in imagination and be creative and it also allows parents to be creative because a big part of play is improvised. Be spontaneous. Follow the flow.

Miller: Hmm. Shauna, Please, go on.

Tominey: Thanks, Dave. I was gonna just go back to something that you said earlier too about how do you take those two minutes if you’re exhausted, right? We know that some parents maybe are working multiple jobs or multiple shifts, have multiple children, maybe are single parents themselves or just are exhausted whether it’s the end of the day or the beginning of the day. And so how do you even just take that two minutes and bring yourself to that space? Sometimes having the reminder and permission that it’s OK to do so helps parents practice in those moments of doing that, of taking that deep breath and saying, “OK, I’m gonna be here for two minutes with my child and focused on them.”

Part of it’s also putting aside the shame and the guilt of not doing that or of taking that time to do that when you feel like you really should be spending that time doing something else to get ready for the day or to contribute to work or the family. And so that’s one of our hopes, too, is to really acknowledge that shame and guilt and normalize how hard even those two minutes can be. And by practicing it together with really simple strategies, reminding parents together the joy that can come from that and how much it can change their day by taking that time, too.

Miller: Sharon Shen, how did you become someone who studies play in adults?

Shen: Hmm. Well, I have my academic reason and my personal reason. I will start with my academic reason. So there is tons of research about the play because play is part of the occupation of the children. That’s most of the things that they do so it’s a totally legit topic to study and there is also so much evidence showing that play is important for children’s development. So a lot of resources and the fundings are invested in studying children’s play, but play is really understudied in adults because we probably think that the play in adulthood is frivolous, it is not very serious, it’s not compatible with the serious context that the work, that job, our research, so not many research out there. However, in the past two or three decades, there has been growing evidence that showing play in adults actually generates just as many benefits.

We actually know that now play for parents, play for adults, makes them more creative in the workplace. They are better connected with colleagues. They are better connected with their families. They derive a stronger job satisfaction from their work. They perform better academically. They are even more attractive to people of opposite sex. So there are many benefits that can be derived from play in adulthood and we want to encourage more of those. And this project that we propose is really to study playfulness in an understudied context that is parenting.

Miller: I want to give the last word to one of our listeners on Facebook. Katie Kinsley wrote, “I was much better equipped mentally to run around playgrounds with them, play hide and seek or do crafts. I had just as much fun as they did and it was a great way to forget the stresses of adulting. I think the physical activity helped me combat depression. It was also an easy thing to do that made us all happy without spending any money.”

Xiangyou (Sharon) Shen and Shauna Tominey, thanks very much.

Tominey: Thank you.

Shen: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Miller: Sharon Shen is an assistant professor in leisure, environment and health at the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. Shauna Tominey is an associate professor in human development and family sciences at OSU.

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