By Susan Sachs Lipman

Back to School means back to the grind, right? Endless forms to complete, homework to be done, appointments and schedules, eating and checking in on the go. Yikes!

It doesn’t have to be that way. Even the busiest family can benefit from some important playtime, downtime and family time. Not only will your family experience more joy and bonding, you will reap benefits in other areas of life and help your kids on the road to success.

Play time has many benefits for young children and their parents. It is also the way children of all ages learn and stretch their creativity, empathy, social skills, and the other “soft skills” that will aid them throughout life.

Try these 8 tips to get more play time into your family’s life:

  1. Make Time for Play

    Learn to embrace, rather than fear, the empty calendar. Unscheduled time is not wasted time ­—far from it! Lots of our discoveries and fondest memories arise from time spent together, doing simple things in a relaxed way.

  1. Shake Up Your Routine

    Maybe eat a meal outside, or let family members take turns planning, or even making, a meal. Ask another family to join you, perhaps one that’s new to your child’s school. Explore a new neighborhood on a weekend afternoon. Have everyone make a wish when the clock reads 12:34. Make music together with inexpensive instruments, or play “Freeze Dance” to a song (play music and take turns calling out “freeze” for dancers to stop in funny positions). Try something out of your comfort zone. Your kids will love you for it! It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re having fun together.

  1. Think Outside the Box

    When the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose found itself with an empty exhibit space between shows, the museum’s exhibit designer tossed a few giant boxes into the area. Immediately, kids started playing in and around them—drawing, role-playing, and creating houses, skyscrapers, and forts. New boxes were added to what would eventually be dubbed “Box City”, one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. All that is to say that kids just want to play. It doesn’t matter if the toy is the latest or most expensive thing, and sometimes it’s best if it’s not.

  1. Keep Mealtime Light

    By the time a child is 18, he or she would have had approximately 6,000 dinners. Why not infuse some fun into your mealtimes by telling jokes for kids, or asking silly questions (that might also elicit information about your child or their day), such as:

    • What color/ animal/ ice cream flavor was today?
    • What’s your favorite thing right now?
    • If you could be invisible, what’s the first thing you’d do?
    • Would you rather travel to outer space or under the sea?

    Or play an easy word game, like one of these travel games, which can be adapted when you are in the car or on a walk.

  1. Make Bath Time Fun

    As with many family routines, you can add play to your child’s bath time. There are lots of bath toys and art supplies available, which allow for child-centered play, while a parent watches. But you don’t even need those. My daughter loved having bathtub “tea parties”, during which she repeatedly filled and emptied plastic measuring cups, teacups, and pots. We sang campfire songs—who says they’re just for camp? And we parents put on washcloth puppet shows with funny voices. Bonus: When my daughter was very young, she would reveal things to the washcloths that she wouldn’t say to us! (This only lasts so long, alas.)

  1. Make Games out of Everyday Activities

    Power out in the neighborhood? Camp in the living room in sleeping bags and read by flashlight, pioneer-style (this is fun even, or especially, if the power isn’t actually out). Have plants to water? Ask your child to help you by checking with a finger to see “who” is wet and “who” is dry. Start a plant or seed race and have your child check on the winner each day. The smallest daily routines offer opportunities for games and family bonding. Kids get to have more fun by being part of things, and you get to be taken out of “chore” mentality.

  1. Play Actual Games

    When was the last time you played Tag or Kick the Can? For some of us, the answer is “never”. Next time you’re in an outdoor space with your family or others, try one of these old-school backyard games.

  1. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

    It’s oft repeated, but true. If you can laugh at yourself and with one another, as often as possible (see also “pick your battles”), you will go a long way toward creating a playful family. Playful families thrive by working together to solve problems when they need to and knowing when to stop everything for the simple act of play.

The bonds created through play can help carry your family through more challenging periods when everyone needs to work toward a common goal. So go ahead, tell a joke. Stop and make a wish just because the clock reads 12:34.

Read more from the Parents Place blog:

12 Tips to Stay Connected with Your Child Once School Starts

18 Ways to Unplug as a Family

Learn more about Parents Place Drop-in Play Groups for ages 0-5 and caregivers.

Seeking resources to help your child thrive? Attend a workshop, schedule a parent education meeting, or schedule an assessment with one of the Child and Adolescent Specialists at Parents Place.

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ activities for family fun and grew out of her blog, Slow Family Online. Slow Parenting and the book were named a Top 10 Parenting Trend by TIME Magazine. Suz has written for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog, and many others. She manages social media for Parents Place.