When work is play and play is work

“I’m sorry, I can’t play, I have to get breakfast ready/ get you dressed/ pack your bag…”

I hear myself say this phrase way too often, and I want to change it. I was sick on Tuesday, too sick to do any of the things I usually do, and I learned two very important lessons.

Lesson 1: An important part of parent’s work is play, and connecting through play doesn’t have to take long

Firstly, Tim came home and he didn’t say “I have to get breakfast ready”, he took a minute or two play with the kids. The couple of minutes it took to play didn’t break the schedule. He still got breakfast ready and eaten, bags packed, and kids dressed in time to go to playgroup, but everyone had more fun doing it.

Lesson 1: Don’t automatically say no. Connecting through play doesn’t have to take long.

Being actively involved with our children through play is important (1; For ideas see the Imperfect Play post in this blog hop). Unfortunately, play can feel like a distraction from all the things that have to get done during the day. I need to remember Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.” I’m not going to look back on this time and care whether the kids ate breakfast and got to playgroup on time, I’m going to remember the interactions and connections we built in the process.

I’m not saying I will or should drop everything to play all the time. It’s important that children can play independently of parents. Unstructured play is important for developing self-directed executive functioning (2). Executive functioning is our ability to regulate our thoughts and behaviour to achieve goals. When I say “Alex, please get your shoes” and he goes to get his shoes but then sees a toy and starts to play – that is a lack of executive functioning. Self-directed executive functioning is the next level, where Alex knows that he wants to go out, so goes and gets his shoes without being asked. That’s a way off yet, but playing, without being told how and what to play, is a step towards that. Not always being available immediately, also allows children to feel small frustrations and wait, which are important skills for learning to self-settle to sleep among other things (as discussed in Helicopter Parenting and Sleep). See the graphic below from the Sleep Options Wizard (for 0-5 year olds) or download the detailed version. We need a healthy balance between structured and unstructured play with and without parents.Self settling sub skills

Lesson 2: With the right set up, work is play, and can be fun

Tuesday afternoon my sister came around and played with the kids. After she’d given them dinner, she very excitedly said “Now it’s time for the clean up game!” She gave very clear instructions. Something like “Let’s put toys in this box really quickly”. I heard squeals of delight coming from the three kids: 14 and 17 months, and 3 years. When I next went in, it was clean!

Lesson 2: Chores can be a game.

I already knew lesson 2, but I’ve been unsuccessful implementing it, so I thought I’d re-examine what makes things intrinsically enjoyable (intrinsic means it is a characteristic of the task itself, not something external such as a reward, praise, or a parent’s expectation).

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done a lot of work in this area. He calls it “flow” when people are so involved in their work or play, that they lose sense of time, and are completely absorbed in the task. Csikszentmihalyi has outlined components often present during the flow experience (3,4). The cognitive evaluation theory outlines very similar conditions (5). I will go through these and see how they might be incorporated into a “clean up game”.

1. Perceived challenges that stretch existing skills

Work is Play ImageOptimal challenge depends very much on your child’s development. For Liz (14 months), just getting a toy in a box is a sufficient challenge. For Alex (3 years), I could use a time constraint, like my sister did, or possibly try throwing toys in the box from a challenging distance. The challenge needs to be achievable, but not too easy. This is why taking a step forward each time you miss, and a step back each time you succeed is such a fun strategy. I’m also going to try cleaning up while moving in different ways, jumping one night, Alex’s choice of animal another night. If you have clean up games that work well in your house please let me know in the comments!

2. Clear, reachable goals, and immediate feedback on progress

Clear goals, rules, and feedback. Part of the problem with cleaning up is probably that the goals are hazy, at least in our house, the floor is never entirely clear and clean. The rules are loose too. Things have approximate, not definite homes. I guess in the long term, I should aim for a more organised play-space where everything does have a home that can be easily learned. Then the play area could look progressively cleaner and then clean, with clear goals (get everything off the floor), rules (each object has a home), and feedback (progressively more visible floor). In the meantime, I might just focus on one goal at a time, such as getting all the soft toys in the soft-toy box.

3. A sense of control over actions

This involves feeling that efforts cause the outcomes and can minimise chance of failure, and a sense of free will.

Do children have the skills needed to feel like they can succeed at cleaning up if they try? Skills needed for cleaning up are the physical ability to put things away, but also the memory to know where things go. I think it is the latter that causes us issues because even I don’t really know where everything goes. Again, a more organised play space would help. I do see Alex get excited when he knows where things go, but if I am always saying “that doesn’t go there” or rearranging items he’s ‘packed away’ he may get the sense that no matter how hard he tries, he can’t get it right.

Based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s description of control over actions, a big part is not fearing failure. We can experience flow when we see mistakes as feedback that enhances learning. As parents, we have a lot of influence over this one. How we react to our child’s failure can shape whether they see mistakes as a learning experience, or catastrophe. This can go the other way too, I find the accident often becomes the game because for some reason Alex loves it when I say whoops. Fun, but counterproductive.

Finally, the cognitive evaluation theory focuses on autonomy, which involves choice, acknowledging feelings, and opportunities for self direction. Choice could be incorporated by offering choice of delegation, such as, “do you want to pack away the books or the blocks?”. Acknowledging feelings, such as “I know you want to play with the blocks but…”. Opportunities for self-direction, so leaving some flexibility around how the cleaning up happens, not micro-managing the process.

Trap for new players

I am weary of turning play into work (I first found out about this through “punished by rewards“, and have done lots of independent research into it since). There are a couple of ways this can happen.

Excessive use of bribes

Firstly, rewarding behaviour that children do for fun, makes that behaviour seem less fun. The common experiment setup is two groups of children start an activity, such as drawing. The experimenter tells one group that they will be rewarded for drawing, but tells the other group nothing about rewards. Then, at a later time the children are given free play where they can choose to play with the same materials as before (such as drawing materials) or different materials. A well-replicated finding is that the rewarded group spend significantly less time on the previously rewarded task than the non-rewarded group during free-play (6). This effect holds for most expected rewards, whether they are task-contingent (do the task – get the reward), or performance-contingent (do the task well – get the reward), but not for unexpected or unconditional rewards. This effect is particularly strong in children. The lesson? Don’t reward something your child already enjoys doing. Praise has more mixed effects, but can cause the same issues, check out these posts from Nurture and Thrive for great advice on using praise: the Power of a High Five, and How to Build Up Your Child.

Why do rewards undermine intrinsic motivation? My understanding is that we don’t actually have perfect knowledge of why we do what we do, but our brains are very good at making up reasons based on available evidence. So if a child does a drawing and gets a reward, the obvious reason for doing the drawing, is to get the reward. If there is no reward, why draw?

Excessive focus on proving (and not improving)

Another way play can become work is if attention shifts from learning to performing. Remember optimal challenge? Well, if we focus on learning, optimal challenge is great. You win some, you lose some, mistakes aren’t a big deal, it’s all a learning opportunity and part of the challenge. Now imagine you are performing to a critical audience and if you stuff up, it is a big deal. Suddenly optimal challenge isn’t so great – you’d rather be able to do it in your sleep. This is exactly what studies find.

Children who think that ability is fixed, that you are smart or not, able or not, tend to have a performance goal. They aim to show that they are smart, able, intelligent etc. Children who think that ability is learned, something that you can gain with practice and effort, tend to have a learning goal. They aim to learn and improve. Children with performance and learning goals look very similar when they are succeeding, but very different when they start to fail. Diener and Dweck (7,8,9) gave children in 4th to 6th grade a series of puzzles. The first 8 puzzles were appropriate to the children’s age, the next 4 were too difficult for their age. When the children started failing, children with performance orientations tended to become very negative, get distracted, and use poorer problem solving approaches. These children said things like ‘I’m no good at problem solving’, and ‘This is boring’. In contrast children with learning orientations tended to stay happy and hopeful, exert more effort and planning, and some even got more excited. For example, one child reportedly pulled up his chair and rubbed his hands together saying “I love a challenge!”, and another exclaimed “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!” (9). There was no difference in ability between performance and learning oriented children. Strategy level and ease of completion was the same on the success problems and none of the children succeeded on the too difficult problems.

Learning orientation is not something your child has or hasn’t. It is largely learned and is influenced by the environment. The behaviour of performance and learning oriented children that I just described has been produced by giving children goals towards evaluating their ability (performance oriented) or the value of the skill to be learned (learning oriented; 10). Children given performance goals also chose tasks that would demonstrate their ability, and chose overly easy tasks if they thought their ability was low, but avoided tasks that would improve their ability but involve some trial and error. Children given learning goals tended to choose the task with learning potential.

Play Matters BlogHop ImageWhether kids focus on learning or performing is largely influenced by their parents’ goals for them and their classroom environment. Children who thought their parents wanted them to show others that they were good at class work, or endorsed statements such as “In our class, getting good grades is the main goal” tended to be more performance focused. Children who thought their parents wanted them to understand their class work not just memorise it, or endorsed statements such as “In our class, how much you improve is really important” tended to be more learning focused (11).

Ideally, learning should be a fun challenge. I can see this in Alex’s play and exploration. For example, when he says “what will happen if I put this in here?” or “what is that noise?” or “what do these letters say?”. He is curious and eager to learn. We can try to support this young curiosity as our children grow by focusing on improving, not proving ability. With the right conditions, learning, school work, and even chores, can be play.

If you have found ways to make work into play, please share in the comments.

This is part of the Play Matters Blog Hop hosted by Janine at Encourage Play.


  1. Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in psychology, 5.
  2. Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. Handbook of positive psychology, 89-105.
  3. Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological bulletin, 125(6), 627.
  4. Diener, C. I., & Dweck, C. S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous change in performance, strategy and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(5), 451-462.



  1. Cleaning up like a garbage truck worked really well tonight – Zander loves garbage trucks!

  2. Cleaning up like a kangaroo was exhausting and slow, but fun.

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