PLAY: How Grandparents Enhance The Lives Of Young Children


PLAY:  How grandparents enhance the lives of young children


The following is an excerpt from Judith Van Hoorn’s book, The Gift of Play: How Grandparents Enhance the Lives of Young Children to be published February 2021 and available from all booksellers.

 Why We Play with Our Grandchildren

Although theorists and researchers speculate about why people play, few ask the players. No one, it seems, has asked grandparents. When I asked grandparents, I found that they answered at length without hesitation:

  • We play just for the fun of playing. It makes him happy.
  • Playing games makes kids laugh.
  • When we play, she’s becoming a loving, affectionate person.
  • It strengthens her arms and legs, and she’s learning to balance herself.
  • He learns to give and receive love and affection.
  • He’s communicating even though he’s so young.
  • We play together—and they learn who we are.
  • When we play together, we witness their fast-paced development, their creativity, their interests.

 Comments like these reflect the multiple reasons grandparents like to play. It’s no wonder that many grandparents and grandchildren can spend hours playing together.

During these conversations, some grandparents said that they play with their grandchildren in much the same ways they used to play with their children. Others point out that they’re with their grandchildren for shorter periods of time than they were with their own children, so they postpone other things they need to do. As grandparents, they feel more relaxed and playful than when they were parents.

What Do We Mean by Play?

Watch young children even for a short time, or think about the stories in this chapter, and you’ll see that play takes countless forms. There’s play that children initiate and play that adults suggest. There’s large muscle rough-and-tumble play, nature play, and play involving language. There’s play in which children explore, pretend, and play with toys.

Sometimes play has simple rules, like Simple Simon or Candyland. More often, children’s play is open-ended and spontaneous with endless creative possibilities. We see children playing with dolls and cars or building with blocks. We see children run and dance, draw and paint, sing and clap their hands. The list goes on.

“Play is easy to identify but difficult to define.”

What is play? Is it play when you cuddle with your grandchild and read a favorite picture book? Is it play when you take a walk and your grandchild looks for worms? We need a definition of play that’s expansive, one that includes all the activities grandchildren and grandparents do to have fun together.

playYou might assume that a book about play would have a commonly agreed-upon definition of play. Not so. Play is easy to identify but difficult to define. But my conversations with grandparents and my research convinced me that all of us know what we mean when we use the word “play.” Ask young children what they’re doing and they often reply, “I’m playing.”

Writers from fields like psychology, education, anthropology, and philosophy have tried to define the term fully. The challenge is to come up with a definition that includes all the myriad types of play, from young children’s spontaneous rough-and-tumble play to strategic games like chess. The definition would apply to all forms of play across developmental ages, cultures, and even history. That comprehensive definition of play is elusive and remains to be written.

Instead, researchers identify characteristics of play. I find that the following characteristics occur most commonly in grandparent and grandchild play. Which ones in this list describe your own experiences?

  • Children and adults are having fun with one another.
  • They’re focused and actively engaged.
  • Their play is spontaneous, with no rigid rules.
  • Their play is voluntary, with no need for reward. They play because they want to, and either one can decide to stop.
  • For both children and adults, the process of playing is more important than achieving a specific goal.

Play between grandparents and grandchildren is characterized by the fun we have and our delight in one another. We take our cues from our grandchildren and become attuned to what pleases them. Though we sometimes take the initiative, our purpose is mutual pleasure. When our grandchildren grow older, our play becomes more truly mutual as they, in turn, learn what delights us, makes us smile, and keeps us engaged.

When people play, they signal to each other that “this is play.” With babies and toddlers, we often smile and open our eyes wider. Especially among preschoolers and kindergartners, play often includes pretending. Grandparents may notice that young grandchildren are still learning the concept of rules and when they apply. So when they play games, they can’t yet follow defined and fixed rules. For younger children, rules are flexible, they may be forgotten, or new rules are declared: “No, Grandma, now we play it this way!”

Another characteristic of play is the age difference between the players. When we think of preschoolers, school-aged children, or teenagers playing, we often imagine them playing with friends their age. The most common exception is playing within families where we see people of different ages playing together. And, with grandparent and grandchild play, the age difference is usually the greatest.

“We need to update our repertoire of songs, stories, books, and movie plotlines, and definitely update the names of popular superheroes and princesses.”

What might that mean for grandparents in terms of what we play and how we play? To begin with, we have to adapt our play styles to one another. For example, we need to update our repertoire of songs, stories, books, and movie plotlines, and definitely update the names of popular superheroes and princesses.

I’m also keenly aware that while my grandchildren’s physical abilities are growing, my own abilities are declining. It’s increasingly challenging to deal with the physical limitations I didn’t have when my own children were young—or even when my oldest grandchild, now 19, was little.

All of us grandparents are learning to adapt to this new situation. Sometimes I’m physically exhausted after a day of taking care of two active grandchildren. Indeed, one day at the park, after I’d spent a long time pushing my then four-year-old granddaughter, Ava, on the swing, I explained that I needed to rest a moment. Ava looked up at me. “It’s OK, Grandma,” she said patiently. “Take as much time as you need.”

I find that play among grandparents and grandchildren generally continues for extended periods but alternates with other activities. Sometimes, we flit back and forth between play and caregiving activities such as feeding our grandchildren. Caregiving can be rushed. We might need to change an uncomfortable diaper quickly or rush to dress a child for preschool. In contrast, play and laughter cannot be hurried. So, even when playful times are short, they remain relaxed and cherished moments.


Play Connects Generations

Play is a golden thread that connects all of us as one human species, across continents and cultures. Play connects each generation’s traditional, but often unseen, heritage.

Play Is Our Family Heritage

What memories do you have of family play, of playing with your parents, grandparents, sister, brother, or other relatives? Singing, storytelling, joking around, bingo games, building with blocks, or frisbee in the park? What kinds of play connect the generations in your family?

Many grandparents remember playing with family members. They specifically mention playing with their own grandparents. Some are happy to remember growing up in a family that played a lot. As she talked with me about playing as a child, Suzanne recalled, “One of my great memories and models was seeing my grandparents play. They had card parties and croquet parties and danced and told stories and jokes and recited poetry. I always knew play was not confined just to children.”

  “Perhaps we remember playing a game of checkers with a grandparent on a rainy day.”

Others have loving memories of their grandparents but say their grandparents were serious or that times were hard so people didn’t play. And others say they treasure their opportunities to play with their grandchildren because either their own grandparents lived far away or they never knew them.

Old photos sometimes remind us of playful intergenerational connections. We might see how our own parents or grandparents held us close and smiled in just the same way we hold and smile at our own grandchild. Perhaps we remember playing a game of checkers with a grandparent on a rainy day.

Now as grandparents, we may pause as we play peekaboo, recalling a similar moment when we played with our own baby. We might remember how this infant game developed into hide-and-seek and later into a game of tag. Perhaps we see glimpses of our own parenting replayed as our son tells a bedtime story to his child, the next generation.

Read more about grandparents


Dr. Judith Van Hoorn, a professor emeritus of education and psychology and a grandmother of four, writes from both perspectives. Her understanding of child development allows her to delve deeply into all aspects of young children’s growth, especially during the first five years. The Gift of Play – How Grandparents Enhance The Lives of Young Children will be available in February 2021.

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