Bonding with your child. As easy as falling off the proverbial log, right? Well actually, the bonding process is complex and ongoing. And it’s not just about parents and kids. Maybe - as an auntie, uncle, grandma or grandpa - you want to feel closer to a special small person in your life, but you’re not sure how.

And that’s where play is pure magic. Studies have shown that playing together is a core part of the bonding process. So here’s some of the science behind bonding with babies and kids through play, and suggestions for lots of fun ways to do it.

Playing together is a core part of bonding with any child.

DAD AND SON WITH PLAN TOYS HAIRDRESSER SET

Bonding often begins at birth, but it can also happen later. (We all know stepchildren and adopted kids can be just as loved as ones you’re related to.) But, whenever it happens, according to the experts, there are several elements to the adult / child bonding process, and play is an important one of them:

Bonding happens when you:

  • Say ‘I love you’
  • Perform acts of caring & kindness
  • Cuddle
  • Act respectfully towards each other
  • Eat together
  • Let a child help you practically
  • Talk about your day
  • Play together

Bonding play doesn’t have to involve toys and it doesn't have to happen on a play mat.

What Does Bonding Play Look Like?

One of the first things to point out is that bonding play doesn’t have to involve toys and it doesn't have to happen on a play mat. It can happen in the car, while you're washing up, on a walk, or as you’re tidying. There’s really only one rule, and that is: let the child lead.

How To Follow Their Lead

  1. Take note of what’s grabbed their attention. Maybe it’s what they’re playing with, like a doll or a ball, or something they’re doing, like jumping in puddles.
  2. Ask if you can join in.
  3. This is the important bit: go along with them. If they roll the ball to you, roll it back. If they're dressing a doll, ask if you can put an item on. Stay focused on the activity. Try not to change the way the play is happening, or distract them with something you’d prefer to do.
  4. Ask questions or comment on what you’re doing together. For example, ‘This doll’s dress is a bit tight - oh good, it’s gone over her head!’ Give them time to reply.
  5. If they switch to something new, let them lead. For example, if they stop jumping in the puddle and start digging in the mud with a stick, grab a stick too!

Father and baby playing with a toy penguin

Notice what they're noticing and follow their lead.

What Can You Play?

Anything, really! Pretend games fire their imagination and role play develops their social skills. Funny conversations and jokes get everyone laughing. Physical games like football, climbing trees and dancing are great for a workout. Puzzles boost reasoning powers and crafts are great for fine motor skills and self-expression. But here are a few starters-for-ten by age:

Birth - 1 Year

PEEKABOO: It's a classic for a good reason. This back and forth game helps your baby learn to trust that things and people go away and come back. This is an important part of building relationships and becoming independent.

SING SING SING: Even if you’re not Taylor Swift, don’t be shy. Try using familiar tunes and changing the words to describe things you’re doing. Your baby will be entranced, no matter how badly you think you're warbling!

BATH TIME FUN: Tub time is the perfect chance to use those bath toys to explore cause and effect, enjoy some good old fashioned splashing, or get creative making beards, horns and hairstyles with the bubble bath.

1 - 2 Years

GO OUTSIDE: You’ll discover so much. Look for mini-beasts with a magnifying glass, jump in puddles, collect some flowers to press. There are often fewer restrictions on outdoor fun, giving a sense of freedom that you can both enjoy.

CAN YOU COPY ME? Make a funny face, do a dance, pretend to be an animal. Take turns in going first or being the copier.

SOCK PUPPETS: Make your own or buy a glove puppet - use it to chat to your child, tell stories and express different moods. You'll be amazed at what alter-egos might emerge from both of you!

LET THEM HELP: Folding clothes, snipping herbs in a cup, holding the lead when you walk the dog, hanging clothes on the line, putting things away. Allowing kids to be useful and playing grown-up is a great way to boost their self-esteem.

Father and daughter playing with Plan Toys cutting veg

Letting them show you their play food, or helping you in the kitchen with real food prep is a great shared activity.

3 Years +

QUIET TIME CHAT: Chat counts as play too. Snuggle up in the comfiest spot in the house or bung a load of cushions on the floor. Then hold hands, talk and really listen to their answers.

DRAW FAMILY & FRIENDS: Get the crayons or paints out and make it family portrait time. Add places you’ve been, pets etc. and let the conversation and the fun flow.

MAKE UP WORDS FOR THINGS - A shared ‘familect’ - the invented words and phrases we use at home - is incredibly bonding. The words that toddlers use while they’re learning to talk often feature in this special private lingo. Collect these with your youngster - maybe in a special book - and cherish them.

CHALLENGE YOURSELVES: Do activities where you have to work together to succeed, like building a construction with blocks, or completing a craft project, or teaming up for a board game with others, or playing a sport and being on the same side. All of these will make you feel a shared sense of accomplishment. Before you know it you'll be high-fiving each other and singing, 'We are the champions!'

A shared ‘familect’ - the invented words and phrases we use at home - is incredibly bonding

Other key benefits of bonding play are:

Seeing the world through their eyes: Babies and less verbal older children can express their views, experiences, even frustrations through play. As their playmate you get an amazing opportunity to gain a fuller understanding of their perspective.

Minimising screen time. We all know the Holy Grail of modern childcare is limited time spent on devices. When a child knows you want to properly play with them, they’re not going to be asking for another episode of Paw Patrol, we guarantee it.

Releasing feel-good chemicals. Having fun releases oxytocin - the bonding hormone - for both the child and adult. So you both get a warm glow, during and after. What's not to love about that?

Mum & daughter playing with Plan Toys Wautermobile cars

Playing together helps you to see the world through your child's eyes.

Great resources

NSPCC: Look, Say, Sing, Play - a treasure tove of fun-to-watch and helpful videos, showing how playing with your baby benefits them while making your bond even stronger.

Vroom - Loads of fun science-based tips and tools for turning everyday events into 'Brain Building Moments'.

Further reading:

Psychology Today:
Why Play With a Child?

American Academy of Paediatrics:
The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development & Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds

We hope you'll find a bit of inspiration here. And remember, if you need any more guidance on great play picks, or anything else, our Live Chat Team is always here to help, 8am-10pm, every day. Just hit that purple button, bottom right.