Hey, dads! Playing frequently with your young kids matters all the way to the classroom.

Some recent research by Meuwissen and Carlson in the Journal of Family Psychology [1] underlines the importance of fathers playing with their pre-school children.  Again, dads, this is not something you want to outsource to daycare, sports coaches or mum – if you can help it. Besides, it can be fun!  I’m talking all kinds of play from puzzles, Simon Says and kid’s card games when they are younger; to the more risky park stuff like monkey bars, ball games slides and climbing equipment as they get older and more able.

Basically, the researchers tracked interactions of 89 children with their fathers in different play environments at ages 3, and then again at age 5.  In the younger years, the play was less overstimulating and involved the puzzles, Simon Says etc. Towards age 5, the play was less structured, riskier and more stimulating in the play gym (playground).  The goal was to track brain skills. In particular, executive function; which effects working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self control.

How important is Executive functioning (EF)?  Well, simply put, good EF in the brain allows us to control our behaviour to reach a goal. Across a life span, executive functioning has been linked to predictive outcomes to wealth, health, educational achievement and criminality [2].

If you’re still with me, here’s what the researchers discovered about the importance of children playing with the dad and it’s impact on school-readiness:

Firstly, when the children were studied at age 3, there was little difference in impact between playing with mum or dad in the low stimulus puzzle environment. It shows that high-quality gentle play at this age improves executive function (EF) whether it’s mum or dad. Adversely, low healthy play in this time from parents seems to be connected with lower EF – and this matters for school-readiness.

Secondly, they discovered that as the children were studied at age 5 in the free-play gym with their father, those with lower EF found the activities ‘too much’ and had trouble coping. In other words, they weren’t ready for the activities and were overstimulated.  This may support the notion that if the child hadn’t been taught to regulate emotions and execute tasks in a quiet puzzle play manner with a parent when they were 3, they were going to struggle with these riskier free-play activities when they were 5.

It’s worth mentioning, that the benefits of dads playing with their kids don’t just matter in the classroom. It matters in the playground too. Further studies indicate that high-quality father−child rough-and-tumble play is connected with fewer conduct issues, improved peer outcomes, and healthier socio-emotional competence in children. [3]

So to the dads of younger kids out there, here’s what we can do to increase school readiness and improve executive functioning:

  1. Play with your child in accordance with their age and development.
  2. Don’t get down on your 3 year old when they can’t get the puzzle right or don’t want to jump off a high platform at the playground.
  3. Keep joy and encouragement high, especially in the younger years. Create safety and connection in the exploration.
  4. When they reach around 5yo, the free riskier play should be led by them and supported by you. Don’t overstimulate your child or disrespect their boundaries and limitations. Your child’s  ’NO’ should matter. If they seem overstimulated and can’t regulate their emotions – it doesn’t indicate weakness or lack of bravery on their behalf. It may just indicate you are pushing too hard, too early and their brains aren’t ready.  Perhaps you need to go back and build up to that through the quiet puzzle play. Yes, it’s not them unable to control themselves, it’s possibly you. Go back and get the foundations right. No regrets… and shortcuts. This is the blessing of neuroplasticity.

Now, go play.. well!!

~ David Tensen


[1] Meuwissen, A. S., & Carlson, S. M. (2018). The role of father parenting in children’s school readiness: A longitudinal follow-up. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(5), 588-598. doi://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.une.edu.au/10.1037/fam0000418

[2] Mischel et al., 2011Moffitt et al., 2011.

[3] Dumont & Paquette, 2013Fletcher, St. George, & Freeman, 2013Lamb, 2004.