The Impact of Father-Child Play

Almost 15 years ago, Kevin O’Shea, a stay-at-home dad with three children, and I wrote the book “The Father-Style Advantage.” A main theme of the book was that dads have a much different parenting style than moms and this difference is very beneficial to children. One of the distinctions between mothers and fathers, we noted, was in the way that dads play with their children. We wrote that the rough and tumble style of play actually helps children, particularly boys, learn emotional control.

It turns out that an article in Developmental Review coming out in September, 2020, confirms what Kevin and I wrote all those years ago. The article, entitled “Father-Child play: A Systematic Review of its Frequency, Characteristics and Potential Impact on Children’s Development," is a meta-analysis of nearly 80 articles that look at what the research says about the frequency and characteristics of father-child play and the influence of play with dads on children’s development.

The key findings of this systematic review of research is that 1) fathers spend a significant proportion of their time with their children engaging in playful interactions; 2) mostly, fathers’ play frequency increases from infancy to preschool age with a subsequent decline in play as children reach early-middle childhood; and 3) studies investigating links between fathers’ play and child outcomes suggest that fathers’ play in the early years can positively contribute to children’s social, emotional and cognitive outcomes.

The literature review also found that people whose fathers played with them more as they were growing up developed stronger self-control as they became adolescents and adults. And, confirming what we all know through observation, fathers tend to play in more physical ways than do moms. Fathers and their children were more likely to engage in giving piggy-back rides, tickling and chasing than were mothers. But it is this more physical style of play that may help children learn to control their feelings. So, having experienced this kind of play with their dads, children, in later years, find it easier to regulate their behavior.

Professor Paul Ramchandani, the study’s lead author, noted that “It’s important not to overstate the impact of father-child play as there are limits to what the research can tell us, but it does seem that children who get a reasonable amount of playtime with their father benefit as a group.”

The way that self-regulation comes about, according to Dr. Ramchandani, is that “Physical play creates fun, exciting situations in which children have to apply self-regulation.” Children have to control their strength and learn when things have gone too far. Playing with their father, he said, is a safe environment in which children can practice how to respond. “If they react the wrong way, they might get told off, but it’s not the end of the world — and next time they might remember to behave differently” Dr. Ramchandani said.

This potential for substantial benefit for children provides a clear imperative for policy makers and practitioners to facilitate and support fathers in developing more positive and playful interactions with their infants.

To read the original article, go to here.

Written by James Windell, MA

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