How can a serious person learn to be playful with kids?
June 24, 2010 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I am generally serious, practical, logical and introverted. How can I learn to be lighthearted, playful, and entertaining with young children? I'm afraid I'm boring and unimaginative. Also I've forgotten a lot of kids songs and games.

Bonus question: I'm babysitting a four year old boy and his two year old sister for a few hours tonight. Ideas on what to do?
posted by desjardins to Human Relations (40 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I practice being creative on my two young cousins by coming up with ridiculous explanations for ordinary occurrences ala Calvin's Dad.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:20 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Kids are easy. Let them guide you. Ask what they want to play and jump in with both feet. Ask them fun questions. Watch their imaginations go wild. Use silly voices. Pretend you're a big monster. Dance around with them. You can have a ton of fun with a two and four year old. Just relax and go with the flow of the moment. Pretend you are three and part of their posse.
posted by bprater at 10:24 AM on June 24, 2010

My patented No Fail Formula For Playing With Kids: Observe or hang out with the kids. Feed them a small bit of junk food. Ask them about their toys. A little more junk food. Play with their toys with them as they would or do whatever they enjoy doing. Often this just means a repeating a lot of stuff they do. Adjust as needed for a kids specific personality i.e. with a book worm, you read books, maybe act them out. With a sports nuts, you play sports (or video games).

Bonus tip: If you decide you don't like the kids or parents, feed the kids sugar shortly before babysitting time is up. THe parents will hate you and never invite you back. WARNING: Be sure and get a verified comment from parents that they're on the way. You don't want to stuck with a sugared up kid 'cause the parents decided to take a detour, right?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:25 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by jeffamaphone at 10:25 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The most important things with kids to be yourself. Kids are amazingly perceptive at seeing through an act. They do not want you to pretend to be someone else, they want you to honest and caring.

One of the most powerful psychological ways to bond with children is to play games with them. Play the game fairly - do not just roll-over and let them win, but give them a chance.

You can sit there and play candy-land with a 4 year old, and still be yourself.

Trying to change yourself for the kids is NOT the right answer. The answer is to be present in their lives, to give them your time, and to care about them.
posted by Flood at 10:25 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

In a pinch, those old theme songs from tv shows (the ones that tell the story) work great for kids. My niece and nephew loved the theme songs from Gilligan's Island, Beverly Hillbillies and The Brady Bunch. (My niece still asks me to sing the one about the "lovely lady".)

As for babysitting, give them a few choices and follow their lead...if they want to draw pictures, draw pictures, if they want to watch tv, watch tv. Try to get a feel for when they're getting bored and change activities. Keep it simple too, play Simon Sez, sing some songs, play follow the leader with silly movements.
posted by NoraCharles at 10:28 AM on June 24, 2010

Bonus tip: If you decide you don't like the kids or parents, feed the kids sugar shortly before babysitting time is up

Please do not do this. Do not sugar up a 2 year old just to get back at some adult. That is incredibly irresponsible.
posted by Flood at 10:28 AM on June 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

Fun for adults and fun for kids aren't necessarily the same thing. Kids LOVE solving problems and puzzles -- serious, practical, and logical are a lot of fun for solving problems and puzzles. (Actual puzzles! Building with blocks! Building with legos! Solving mazes! Doing treasure hunts!) They also love exploring, going on walks in nature, looking for beetles and bugs, etc. The respond to quiet enthusiasm as much as to noisy enthusiasm.

Also, rhymes. I have yet to meet the kid under 7 who doesn't think it's HILARIOUS when I rhyme something. Once while babysitting I touched a pan that was slightly too hot, shook my hand and said, "Ouch, roasty toasty!" The kids thought that was so funny they repeated it for the next half an hour and told their mom how hilarious I was when she got home.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:28 AM on June 24, 2010

It does take a little bit of letting go of your adult expectations and attitudes when you hang out with kids. Mostly you just have to forget about looking stupid to any other adult.

For your activities tonight, I've never met a kid under 5 who didn't like bubbles and playing in the sprinkler. Take 'em outside and let them get wet.

Easy indoor activity: Dance Party! Turn on your favorite upbeat music and have them show you their favorite dances. Join them, if you're so inclined.

Also: ice cream.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:29 AM on June 24, 2010

with this age group, waterplay, in the extremely innocent sense of the word, is the bomb. Lit and fig.

If it is appropriate, have them put on their bathing suits, line the bathroom floor with plastic/old towels, and fill the sink. Then give them simple, age-appropriate tasks to do like stand on one foot and put your right pinky on your nose, if they fail the other gets to slap the water really hard and create a "Tsunami" in the bathroom.

It is likely this is not something the parents encourage so you will be the subversive fun auntie, promise

(you may need a dehimidifier for the bathroom and check its OK with parents, in my experience if someone has babysitting rights on my babies they generally supervise the bath but I know that's not the case for many people, sad, but true!)
posted by Wilder at 10:30 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think if you're open to it, the kids will help you take yourself out of that serious and introverted space.

Reading children's books (theirs or mine from a collection I had) was always my standby when I babysat. Just generally being totally there and giving them your full attention in ways that someone who is parenting full-time might not have the energy to be doing all the time seemed to go over pretty well for me.
posted by clever anonymous username at 10:31 AM on June 24, 2010

I have a three year old neice, and she's bossy enough to direct traffic. Nthing bprater, just let the kids take the lead in deciding what to play. That being said, I always make sure to have a "secret weapon" in my pocket for when they get bored, cranky or tired and I need to distract them. The secret weapon can be anything, it just needs to do its job of distracting the kids.
posted by LN at 10:32 AM on June 24, 2010

I wouldn't call myself a 'kid person' but I generally do okay around children. I don't ever delve into baby talk or anything that really takes me out of my normal self, and I find that if I'm alone with kids rather than in a group of adults and kids, I am better with them.

I enjoy reading, and most kids I know don't read a lot, so I read to them as long as they'll stay calm. (A lot of the parents say, "My kids won't sit long enough to read a book/they hate reading/etc" but this is rarely true. All the kids I've babysat for enjoyed being read to. Animated voices help.)

Kids' toys can be pretty fun, as well. I recently bought my nephew a build-your-own-stuffed-monster kit that connects with Velcro and I may have played with it more than him. Sit on the floor with them to get on their level, watch their actions, play with them. Let yourself become a kid again, even if your kid self wasn't typical. I know I wasn't, and I do alright.
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:32 AM on June 24, 2010

Response by poster: FYI the babysitting gig tonight is a one-shot deal for these particular kids, but we're having a kid of our own soonish so the question still applies.
posted by desjardins at 10:32 AM on June 24, 2010

Self-linking my go-to rule of thumb: treat kids like they're cats.
posted by Drastic at 10:38 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a great game for kids - give them silly instructions to follow, but pretend it's a Very Important Job. Something along the lines of saying very seriously, "Okay, I have something I need you to do. It's very important. Are you ready? Do you think you can handle it? Okay, when I say go, I need you to run as fast as you can to the door, put your hand on the door and sing 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' as loudly as you can, then run back. Go!" Mix up the instructions each time. Either repeat the same actions, but add one step each time, or have them do something totally different. Good things to include are spinning, jumping, touching toes, shouting out their name, acting like different animals, making a silly laugh, doing a funny dance. The two-year-old might not be able to follow your instructions very well, but she can have a lot of fun trying.

Also, you might get the kids to make a special welcome home gift for their parents. They can draw a picture, or decorate a sign or a card and tell you what words to write on it for them.
posted by Dojie at 10:46 AM on June 24, 2010

Thinking about this a little more, I guess I'd have to say that my cousins basically tell me what they want to do. I make a big fake huff about how I'm old and tired and don't want to play tag, and then catch them by surprise and drop them on their heads. They're pretty active, so they usually want to roughhouse - I'll play pony, or they want to get on my shoulders and get carried around the house, or spin them in circles.

I got the older one (eight) to play a board game (Bohnanza) with me this past weekend. The younger (five) was content to collect our cards and "win" by having the most of them. My brother, on the other hand, is such a big stickler for rules and proper gameplay that he would never have allowed such shenanigans to occur.

In general - and I'm not sure if it's just these kids or all kids in general - they're very inquisitive. I "taught" them to play guitar during one visit (I held chords and they strummed), and they were both tickled by that. This weekend, I took them to the airport and showed them the plane I fly; they didn't do much more than jump on the seats and try to move the controls around, but they really enjoyed it and I didn't really have to do much.

I consider myself pretty serious and logical, too, and frankly I'm rather surprised at how well they respond to me. After they were done with the airplane, their father was taking them back to the car (I was departing with the plane to go home) and the little one told him, "I really like cousin backseatpilot!" I guess I'm doing something right.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:47 AM on June 24, 2010

As a live-in uncle, I can not stress enough the importance of music. Kids love music. My 2 year old nephew absolutely LOVES The Wiggles. Pop in some of their music or one of their DVDs and the kid is a dancing machine. Dancing along with them wins big points.

nthing Flood's plea not to sugar the kids up. While the suggestion made me chuckle, the drama caused by a sugared up kid is a special level of hell I wouldn't wish on anyone.
posted by BrianJ at 10:53 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Serious, practical, logical, introverted... You're judging yourself through adult eyes. Kids that age don't even know these words, and they're not yet invested in boxing you into such categories. They're perceptive but not judgmental. They think all kinds of random things are interesting. Their idea of entertainment is mud and water. And being with them can be so liberating!

So don't worry about entertaining them, just be open and enjoy the experience of hanging out. If you're having a good time, there's no way they won't.
posted by mondaygreens at 10:53 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

This may sound a bit strange, how are you with pets? I ask because the "you're a kitty!" persona is actually not all that far-off from what you want with really small children. Deliberately tapping into that sort of ridiculousness may be a good shortcut.

Datapoint: One Halloween when I was in junior high school, I was hanging out at a friend's house awaiting Trick-Or-Treaters. The first bell of the night rang and I opened the door. "Trick or treat!" a girl of about four in a princess costume said brightly.

"Hello," I said in a normal voice. The smile was wiped clean off the little girl's face. "Um, have some candy." I presented the bowl to her and she started looking at it glumly. I didn't know what I had done, much less what I should do. She looked back up and me, I tensed up and tried to smile, and she started to look as though she might cry. Shit!

Just then my friend joined me at the door. "HIIIIIII!" she said. "Are you a princess????? I really like your costume!! Where did you get it?????!!!!!"

The little girl's face lit right back up. "I'm a fairytale princess and my mommy made my costume!!!!" The exchange went on for a little while longer, the girl chose her candy, and skipped away smiling.

Thinking about it later, I realized why I had never been good with small children. My parents had never talked to me in babytalk, even when I was really young, and also, I had always looked significantly younger than my age, prompting other adults to use dealing-with-small-children tactics with me when I really was way too old for them. I remember finding the whole thing ridiculous and an insult to my intelligence.

But that night reminded me that most kids who look like they're four are actually probably four, and furthermore that most four-year-olds like uninhibited effusiveness and high-pitched tones. I had always been fairly good with dogs, and hell if I didn't get all happy-ridiculous and "You're a doggy! Yes you are!" with them without worrying about insulting them.

So. While kids are clearly human beings and such, I find that on a practical level it's very helpful to think of them as being more like pets than like miniature adults. The most important thing is to know that kids that age won't become uncomfortable because you're being ridiculous. They'll become uncomfortable because they perceive that you're uncomfortable. I don't have any suggestions for particular games and things (I'm sure other posters can help you with that), but as for the serious attitude thing, this is what has helped me the most.
posted by randomname25 at 10:56 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

With kids that age, one thing they really like is to have you do play-by-play commentary on what they're doing. "The red car is driving up to the blue car... it bumped it! Oh, the blue car fell over. Now the red car is driving backwards. You put it on top of the sofa and then it fell DOWN boom!" Don't ask questions (that can feel like a test to them), just narrate their play. It takes a while to get used to doing it but I swear, little kids glow when you do it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:01 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

As for the kid(s)-to-be: it all changes when the child is your own. It was weird for about a day with me and then all my "adult" seriousness went out the window. It's hard to convey how this happens but it's a totally different experience when the child is your own.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:10 AM on June 24, 2010

My kids (near that age) LOVE being buried in pillows and springing out. And blanket forts, FTW. Also nth-ing just be silly. Be willing to act crazy and have fun with them. If they like something you do, do it over and OVER again, ad nauseum. They'll love you. My kids aren't really fans of singing or dancing, but if these kids are, do it, and you're in like Flynn.
posted by Spyder's Game at 11:19 AM on June 24, 2010

I came back to agree with randomname25 - I'm currently living in a situation where I'm around a puppy and a little girl every day, and I have to say that the similarities are striking. I was reading a book about dog behavior, and in it the author (a teenager) says, if your dog could talk, do you know what it would say most of the time? "Me too!"

Little kids are a lot like that, they take their emotional cues from the adults around.
posted by mondaygreens at 11:23 AM on June 24, 2010

Lots of great advice above.

One thing that it's perfectly okay to do--and is, in fact, sometimes necessary--is to put a limit on how many times you're going to do/play/sing something. Just give the kids lots of warning. My niece likes to be grabbed and tossed on the bed, but because my back can't take an infinite number of repetitions of this game, I have to say "Okay, we can do it five times!" and then we count down.
posted by corey flood at 11:58 AM on June 24, 2010

If you read a book to a child -- and you really should, as often as you can -- please make sure to read with expression and do the voices. Me, I got a wicked awesome pirate Arrrrrrr! that my kids love, but it tears up my throat. Worth it every time, though.

Anyway, play their favorite boardgame with them, or watch a nature show, or ask them to tell you a story about their parents.

tl;dr answer is, go with the flow. You'll do great!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:14 PM on June 24, 2010

I wanted to come back and hit again on the introverted thing -- adults say "introvert," kids say, "Hey, that grown-up listens when I talk!" Kids get talked at a LOT by adults -- lectured, given instructions, ordered around, told stories to, good and bad stuff both -- but there are a limited number of adults who actually listen to the many, many Extremely Important Things that children have to share. I come from a big family and, growing up, it was not unusual to find all the littler kids clustered around the quietest aunt or uncle because that's the one who listened most!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:22 PM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

  1. Get down on their level. Literally. It lets you not feel like you are standing on a stage talking over them, forces you to actually interact -- with them, with their toys. And they are less intimidated.
  2. Remember the first rule of improv: never say 'no' (within limits, obviously). You want to make a fort out of couch cushion? Sure, I'll help! Do I want to come see your room? Absolutely!

posted by misterbrandt at 12:29 PM on June 24, 2010

Saw some folks talking about music and dancing. This is also what I'd suggest.

I am NOT a fan of tiny adults, but I had to do some babysitting when I was a teenager. I'd always just put on the oldies radio station (if you're worried about what kind of music is appropriate, ask the parents) and say "DANCE TIME! WOO!" and just let go and be silly.

Since you're expecting to foster/adopt, I suggest practice (maybe reading to, but I have no recommendations or proof that it would help you). Offer to babysit more often, or start volunteering. I used to volunteer at a shelter for battered women, and my main task was occupying the kids. It helped me be more comfortable with them.

Good luck!
posted by Lizsterr at 12:36 PM on June 24, 2010

Kids ARE pretty directive but sometimes it gets weird. Be sure to keep your sense of humor on deck and (rarely) social services...

My ex's 5 year old niece: We're gonna play house. You be the daughter and I'll be the mom.

Me: Ok.

Her: You be good. I'm gonna go drink with my friends now. *takes toy purse and leaves*

Also, assume the child can focus on something waaaaaay less than you can. As the age of the child increases (generally) so does the attention span. A four year old may not be able to sit through a super cool movie you picked out but a 10 year old might love spending all day at the public museum.
posted by ShadePlant at 12:37 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh and I forgot to say try to be as honest as you can with kids. They know when they're being fooled, especially about serious things like hospital visits or where the cat went. I don't mean you can't mess with them now and again, e.g. "When I was little I had to go outside and count all the grass everyday," but be honest. If you need help being age-appropriate with honesty, run it by someone else. You'd tell a four year old and a twelve year old about something like a classmate with cancer in different ways. ¡Buena suerte!
posted by ShadePlant at 12:41 PM on June 24, 2010

If you are a serious, practical, logical person, you may have another quality that kids respond to in spades - patience.

Other successes I've noticed as a private music instructor (ages 10-21+) and an uncle:

* Patience is a great quality, but kids also need to know limits. Don't be afraid to say you're done with an activity.

* Find out what motivates each child and then engage them in a joint activity - don't just dictate things for them to do, participate as well. As a music teacher, this meant I played duets a lot. As an uncle, it means playing games the kids already enjoy (crazy house rules and all), not just games I want them to enjoy.
posted by Wossname at 12:46 PM on June 24, 2010

+1 for get on the floor, go along with their suggestions and remember that it might turn out that after you have organised a whole table full of stuff for painting or crafting or whatever, they might do that activity for 5 minutes.

I am somewhat serious with kids, I listen to them and am interested in what they do, and they totally love it. It also makes it more valuable for them when you do get silly. I have had a four-year-old help me examine a new sleeping bag while being told about the difference between synthetic polymers and natural fibers. She hadn't a cluuuuue what I was talking about, but was nodding and grinning like a loon. Then we had icecream with ketchup on. Had quite an interesting discussion on the uses of 10-sided vs. 20-sided dice with a 5 year old and then threw her in a big pile of leaves. Good times.

That said, for babysitting it's good to have a few "I know, lets..." in your bag. Instructables is a good place to find little projects like newspaper crafts or 5-minute chocolate cake, a cellphone full of kitten/puppy/monkey photos can be a good distraction, drinking out of a bowl instead of a mug, knowing how to make a sockpuppet or dishtowel bunny, ask them to teach you something (a song or whatever), kids will also throw paper planes longer than you would think.
posted by Iteki at 1:27 PM on June 24, 2010

I'm generally serious/introverted/practical/etc, just like you. One of the things I love most about being with my 4-year old nephew is that I am absolutely free to leave my introverted chains behind. Things that other adults would consider foolish are things that he embraces. Just allow yourself to be silly and don't care about how you look. Being with kids is so freeing, you're going to love it.

Also, what makes me nephew the happiest is just someone who pays attention to him and takes the time to play with him. He makes up the games usually - I just respond with enthusiasm.

It's really not hard. Don't work yourself up about it.
posted by sickinthehead at 1:42 PM on June 24, 2010

Most kids that age love little enclosed spaces and forts and such. Not suggesting putting them in the closet or anything, but a card table or other table with a blanket over it, and that they can crawl under and hide in can be endless fun for them, or something they incorporate into a larger game that they leave and come back to.

Mostly though I'd just say that kids are generally pretty imaginative and good at entertaining themselves; just follow their lead if you can't think of anything. At the same time, they do like to be shown new stuff, and you and your stuff will be new to them, so you'll be fine.
posted by ambrosia at 4:12 PM on June 24, 2010

How can I learn to be lighthearted, playful, and entertaining with young children? I'm afraid I'm boring and unimaginative. Also I've forgotten a lot of kids songs and games.

So be yourself! As a kid, I would have loved you. Pace randomname25, I didn't care for the grownups with the sing-song voices who wanted to lead songs or games for kids. They made me nervous, because the games were silly and there was always something you would do wrong and then they'd talk to you like a baby until you got it right, and then if you didn't it was like you'd spoiled everybody's party. I loved grownups who listened, who took me seriously -- who listened to my suggestions, and either took them or didn't and explained why. Just as you would do, in fact, with a grownup.

Are some kids going to be too bored and hyperactive to care about that? Sure, but you're not obligated to like them or be liked by them, just as you are not obligated to like them or be liked by other people -- which is all that kids are; other people with some cognitive development to go. Just let them lead the play, and watch out for their good health.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:26 PM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just recently spent several hours playing with a two-year-old girl, and her parents commented afterwards about how much she liked me. We mostly did the same puzzle over again and played with toy trains. I think what she liked was that I was willing to do repetitive tasks with her, and that she had my undivided attention. I asked her tons of questions - what happens at the doctor? What does it feel like when you get a shot? What is it like to go get a haircut? etc and I think she really enjoyed feeling like she was teaching me things. She has a few older siblings so it's especially rare for her to feel like an expert, but most kids don't get too many chances to feel like adults are learning about something from them rather than the reverse.
posted by little light-giver at 5:13 PM on June 24, 2010

Countess Elena,

Good point, I'm sure I wasn't unique in disliking the sing-songy shtick/big song-and-game production numbers. That said, while I think many four-year-olds enjoy adult-style conversations (I was one of them), others do not, and two-year-olds really are too young.

I guess when I made the pet comparison, I was probably thinking of the high-pitched tones and repetition common in interactions with both types of creatures. (It's been found that caregivers raise their pitch and repeat things more with young children, consistent across every culture studied.) I shouldn't have suggested that four-year-olds are so animal-like that none of them appreciate real conversation; that simply isn't true.

I stand by my point that the most important thing is to act comfortable no matter what you're doing, because as mondaygreens succinctly pointed out, kids tend to take their emotional cues from the adults around. So if you're going to be all fun-and-games, don't worry that you're not doing it right; get into it!
posted by randomname25 at 7:55 PM on June 24, 2010

Get children interested in what you're interested in. If you're "serious, practical, logical and introverted" in general, find games that exercise their tiny logic glands and get them to concentrate on solving things by themselves. Sit and draw, for example, if that's your kind of activity. Create a science book showing examples of all the colors in nature: blue this, red that. Solve problems (riddles) if you like logic. If you hate to run around, don't try to play such games because you won't last long and they'll just be disappointed when you say fuck it and sit down again.

By the way: you could feed them all the sugar in the world and it wouldn't do what people are saying it would do. That's an old wives's tale. Google around. It wouldn't be good for their diet or teeth, and you should of course feed them only what their parents tell you to feed them, but a load of sugar wouldn't make them hyperactive. For example:
An article published in the British Medical Journal today has dismissed the commonly held belief that sugar causes hyperactivity in children as a ‘medical myth’. [...]
posted by pracowity at 3:21 AM on June 25, 2010

Response by poster: I survived the toddler onslaught! Actually, the two year old was in bed the entire time (and slept like a rock), so I was only left with the four year old boy. I fought space aliens! And zombies! And crabs and snakes and giants (not sure about giant snakes)! I learned how to use a flashlight gun (which confusingly appears to be a standard-issue flashlight, but apparently is not). I spent a lot of time dying on the floor. Apparently I'm a terrible shot. Sometimes I was the good guy, sometimes I was the bad guy. I learned that if I spin around three times, I become a "bad boy" (somehow different than a "bad guy") and the four year old becomes a "princess" (who is really good with a machine gun). Flashlight guns also turn into lightsabers, by the way. Also, the four year old has "a million lives," where I have only one. Sounds about right.

Anyway, I'm exhausted.
posted by desjardins at 10:17 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

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