Think you’re just letting your child beat you in another game of Hungry Hippos? Think again. You’re actually rewiring your kid’s brain and helping their social, linguistic and emotional development.
It’s not just child’s play in other words – it’s a potentially life-changing activity.
That’s the advice from Paul Ramchandani from Cambridge University who was appointed last year as the world’s first ever professor of play.
Building on 15 years of experience as a researcher in the child and adolescent mental health research unit at Imperial College London, Professor Ramchandani’s role explores how play can improve learning, boost emotional well-being and develop kids’ skills in problem-solving, team-work and self control.
The Father Hood spoke to him ahead of his appearance as a keynote speaker at the Australian Fatherhood Research Symposium at Deakin University.
TFH: Why is it so important for dads to play regularly with their kids?
Professor Ramchandani: Kids benefit from playing with a variety of different people – it helps with so many aspects of children’s development, such as their social development, their development of language and how they learn to manage their own emotions. But play is also important in its own right – having fun, and developing warm, caring relationships is important in life, and play is one of the best ways to do that. Both mums and dads, and other carers, bring something important to that.
TFH: Fathers have been a theme in your work for a long time. How does the way that dads play with their kids compare to mums?
Professor Ramchandani: There is research that suggests that, on average, dads play in a more physical way with children than mums. That more physical, stimulating play may help with some aspects of development. The main point though is for dads to get engaged and stuck in with playing with their children, as this has been shown to be linked to more positive behaviour and cognitive development (learning) for children, even from the first few months of life.
TFH: Should dads focus on doing anything specific when it comes to playing with our kids?
Professor Ramchandani: The first thing is to get stuck in and enjoy playing with their children, right from their first weeks and months. This is probably the most important thing. A variety of play is great and it’s good to try new and different things.
The second thing I would suggest is to sometimes stop and follow the lead of your child. I don’t speak for all dads when I say this, but I know many of us are really keen to teach our kids, and often take the lead in play. There’s nothing wrong with that sometimes, but it’s good for children to lead as well, as they learn a lot from that. So, I would suggest sometimes just slowing down and following what your child is doing, even if they are very young.
Third, talk to them about what you are doing together, even if they aren’t old enough to speak themselves.
TFH: You recently conducted research on post-natal depression in men. In that, you found that a teenage girl is more at risk of developing mental health problems if her father has experienced post-natal depression.
Professor Ramchandani: There are now a few studies showing that where dads have had depression in the postnatal period, their children have an increased risk of depression or other mental-health problems. This is very similar to what has been found when mums have had postnatal depression. It’s not completely clear what is causing this link – it’s likely to be a mix of factors, including genetics, the difficulties and stresses and strains in life that many families share, but also something to do with stressful family relationships.
TFH: So what do you advice would you give to a new dad who suspects he may have depression?
Professor Ramchandani: If you think you might have depression, I’d strongly suggest seeking help – this can be from a variety of places, but a visit to your family doctor, or local mental health or counselling services (if you have them) is a good place to start. The important thing is not to suffer in silence and to try and get the support and help you might need.
TFH: Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given about fatherhood?
Professor Ramchandani: It wasn’t advice given personally to me, but the paediatric doctor Donald Winnicott wrote about mothers trying to be “good enough” and I think that was good advice for me to hear. You can’t be a perfect parent, and children don’t need a perfect parent. You shouldn’t aim for that, but try to be a “good enough “ dad.