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A few weeks ago someone asked me a question that really made me pause and think.

You know me, the “cool” dad with a blog about parenting and marriage and stuff. The guy who shares his insights about life as a dad and a husband.

The guy who wants to be better and HELP others feel better about their own journey through adulthood.

I’ve never claimed to have it all figured out, but by all accounts, I feel like I’m a pretty good dad.

But sometimes taking a step back and asking yourself how you could improve is always a good thing.

Recently, I met with a coach who is helping me figure out some things with my businesses and some personal stuff. She asked me some questions about my life and how I spend my time. I’m kind of all over the place most days so it’s hard to nail down a “normal” day in words.

First, she asked me, “Do you schedule time for play?”

For me? Not really. I’m a pretty busy guy. Most of my time is devoted to hustling the kids about, taking care of things around here, homework, Cub Scouts, band practice, etc during the week.

And on the weekends, we all catch up and hang out together. So any time for myself is hard to come by.

Then she asked THE question, “Well, do you play with your kids?”

I sat and thought about it. I opened my mouth. Nothing really came out. I thought some more. The round about answer was “sort of” but not really. I mean, I’m around them all the time. Of course I play with them. But do I really?

“I go outside with them a lot,” I said.

“Ok, but are you playing with them or just watching them play.”

“Sigh…I’m usually watching them, but I do join in from time to time…and we do play board games and stuff as a family,” I added hurriedly.

“Well, that counts,” she said.

I said, “We spend a lot of time hanging out and talking and laughing and being silly together.”

“Okay, well, that counts too. Play can mean a lot of things.”

But I wasn’t satisfied with that.

The truth is I don’t really carve out time just to play with the kids on their terms.

At least not very often. And not always what KIDS consider play. Yes, I do drop everything sometimes, and it’s always more than worth it but…

Play to me as a parent is usually spent being goofy and silly and making up funny voices and songs while I’m doing something else—getting a snack, making dinner, doing laundry, or trying to sneak in a breather from it all. (aka sitting and scrolling facebook or reading the news for a few minutes.)

At my best on most days, I stop for a minute here or there and join in the fun before “getting back to it.” Whatever that it is.

I’ve gotten pretty “good” at multi-tasking playtime into being a busy dad.

I’m really into the emotional health of my children, so I make sure to grab as many hugs and kisses as I can. And I break for 5-10 minutes here and there to talk about their day and how they feel about things that are important to them. I take their emotional well-being very seriously. So I make sharing our feelings about things important, and at times it’s fun and playful.

I thought I was doing it all right.

But with that question “Do you play with your kids?” I discovered a glaring hole in my kids’ world—focused, planned, unwavering attention to them devoted solely to play.

Play for kids is different. It’s unfettered time that they do their business of being kids. Fred Rogers said…

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

It’s also where we as parents have an amazing opportunity to “fill their toolbox” while reaping some pretty nice health benefits ourselves. Playing with our children can increase oxytocin levels, which helps with social bonding as well as empathy and generosity.

In her article, “Why Play With A Child?” Dr. Darcia F. Navarez writes, “Parent-child pretend and physical play is linked with the child’s competence, gross motor skills, peer group leadership, and cognitive development…interactive play can also help a child learn how to regulate their emotions better. Lastly, providing your child with an “enriched environment” through play can lower their stress chemicals.”

Apparently I’m not as into their emotions as I thought…sigh…but no looking back. We’re working on the future here.

I could copy and paste the whole article, but you get the drift. Playing with your kids is a good thing. And before you think “Well, don’t they get some of that from playing with their siblings?”

Not totally.

Dr. Navarez adds “Another interesting fact is that infants and preschoolers often use behaviors that require a partner while playing with parents, but are less likely to do so when playing with their siblings… A child just wants to interact with the parent more. That’s the whole point. Playing with other children may be fun, but nothing beats the joy and satisfaction of getting one’s parent to play with you.”

Damn. I can do way better.

A lot of us can do better I believe. How many of us make excuses for other things in our lives? We don’t have time…time to eat right…to exercise…to get the house clean…to work on that side project. But the sad reality is, that’s all a bunch of bullshit.

We can carve out whatever time we want as long as we make it a priority. I can testify to that. The last few weeks I’ve been more mindful of the time I spend with my kids. It’s as simple as turning my phone off and hitting the park for 20 or 30 minutes.

Or playing dolls with my little girl in the last moments before bedtime—something I usually cringe at the thought of (I feel like I’m no good at it), but once I do it, I’m more than happy.

So is she. She lights up with glee whenever Daddy comes to play Barbies.

The fact is, we have more time than we care to admit. We just don’t use it wisely.

Those moments spent talking, smiling, laughing, and interacting on their turf—in their world—free from the burdens of adulthood is like magic.

And guess what? Once you start minding what time you focus on your kids, other things start falling into place. Our house is staying cleaner since cleanup is incorporated into play. I have more time to focus on chores, since the kids are getting their appetite for my attention met. I’m eating better, and the extra time interacting with them is getting me moving more. I’m also happier because I feel like I’m serving my kids the way they need to be served.

So my challenge to you and to me. Block out the time. Turn more of those “No’s” into “Yes” when they ask “Will you play with me?”

Do it. Everyone will be better for it.

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