Playful Engagement

Dear Asking For A Friend,,

Imagine you are seated in your living room with a young baby on your lamp. Do I walk in the room and with a serious face say, “Hi baby. It’s nice to see you. I’m glad you’re with your mom?” Of course not! I make eye contact with the baby, I put a big smile on my face and I say, “Hi-i-i-I baby.” I use a playful tone, few words, and maintain a happy expression. Why? I want a smile from that baby. I don’t want her to be scared of me; I want to connect. I want her to respond as if she likes me.

Did you know that the brain has to be 100% engaged to laugh and realize humor? And when the brain is fully engaged, we can learn quickly and thoroughly.  How do we apply this to our children who aren’t babies? Early trauma and adverse experiences interfere with ordinary child development. Many of our children missed the development stage of playful engagement and our ability to meet that need contributes to felt safety, connection, and trust. Remember, children who “camp out” in their survival brain are much more focused on your tone, facial expressions and gestures than in what you are actually saying. Playful engagement uses a playful tone, an open cheerful expression, and a relaxed posture. This says to your child’s brain, “I’m safe. You can have fun with me. Your brain can fully engage and you can learn.”

Playful engagement may be using “drive-by’s” in a cheerful tone, “Wanna try that again with respect?” “Who’s the mom? Oh, I am!” “Asked and answered.” Sometimes, it may be overlooking the behavior in the moment to create a silly moment like using a foreign accent in order to distract the brain from a place of fear to create a connecting moment.
When we’re tired, frustrated, and “at our wits end,” it’s challenging to be playful. But try it – you might be pleasantly surprised that not only does it help your child stay regulated, but it helps you relax and fall in love with your kiddos all over again!


For children and families,