Tiptoe Like a Chicken: Using Play to Parent


The two to four-year-old age group is unique. Sandwiched somewhere between baby and kid, their impulse control and ability to express and regulate emotions are still developing. This can be a challenge for parents used to communicating with those not a) screaming b) constantly in motion c) covered in breakfast and/or mud, or d) all of the above.


Here are some tools to help you communicate, cooperate, and play with your little one:

  1. Pretend to be an animal. All of the time. 

    I first realized the power of animal play during a visit to my daughter’s dentist. To get her to open her mouth wide, the dentist asked her to “roar like a lion.” My daughter was nervous about the exam, but enthusiastically roared and relaxed. Later, at a visit to the park, my two-year-old went to full pout and whine mode when I told her it was time to go. She screamed, “No!” and was literally dragging her feet until I said, “Hey, let’s stomp like an elephant as we walk.” I began to stomp my feet and say “Stomp!” with every step. She immediately perked up and stomped along with me. We hopped like bunnies and tiptoed like chickens, and before we knew it we were out of the park and on our way home.

    Now I use animal play for everything from brushing teeth to doing chores, and getting dressed. I’ve found it can improve the mood of the grumpiest child and encourages cooperation and happy play in a magical way. 

  2. Step softly and sing a lot. 

    The power of music from your voice is real. I know, I know, not all of us are confident singers and many can’t even carry a tune. (Guilty!) Not to worry, your child doesn’t know about tune; all they care about is the sound of your voice, and the fact that you are connecting with them. Songs can snap your child out of a bad mood, diffuse a tense situation, and add another dimension of fun to play. Whether it’s a baby song, lullaby, rock music, or one you create yourself, singing can do things that talking voices can’t. And don’t underestimate the power of the sing-song voice, either. It can help you keep your cool when repeating yourself for the millionth time, and bring a smile to the face of a cranky kiddo.

  3. Find a balance between your schedule and your child’s independence. 

    Young children move at their own pace, and usually that pace is slower than adults would prefer. There is a definite stop and smell the roses kind of beauty in this, however for busy parents, it can feel exasperating. The next time your child is moving slower than you like, ask yourself if you are feeling impatient because you are truly in a hurry, or if you are simply uncomfortable slowing down. Often all your child needs is an extra minute or two to accomplish something on their own. This small amount of time can mean big gains in confidence and independence if you allow for it. 

    Recently my toddler asked to climb out of her car seat on her own. My first impulse was to lift her out, and get to the next item on my to-do list. When I realized that I didn’t have anything urgent to do, I waited the four minutes it took her to carefully climb out of her car seat and the car. She gave me a bright smile and proudly proclaimed, “I climbed out by my own self, mama!” It made me glad I had taken the time to let her.

    Of course, sometimes the schedule calls, and you don’t have a few minutes to spare. That’s okay. Other times you’ve been on “kid time” all day, and you don’t have one more minute left in you. That’s okay, too. Finding balance in this will be an ongoing task, but the effort will make for a happier child and a happier you.

  4. Make errands and chores fun. 

    Life is one big adventure for young children, so take advantage of their natural curiosity and positive attitude. Turn a trip to the grocery store into a scavenger hunt. It will keep them distracted from rows of snacks and treats you pass. Make clean-up time a game of “feed the monster,” as you put toys and clothes into their bins. (Bonus points for using a monster voice!) On days when my children complain in the car, I pretend it’s a rocket ship, and ask them to help me count down to blast-off before we drive. It’s silly, but it works every time. Get weird, get goofy and you might find that you’re having almost as much fun as your child.

What creative and fun ways do you turn play into parenting tools?

Previous articleMom vs Dad: 6 Ways We Parent Differently
Next articleThe Burden and Beauty of a Sister
Sara is a self-dubbed “child of the Northwest” having grown up in various parts of Oregon and Washington. Aside from brief stints living in Bordeaux, France and upstate New York, Portland has been her home since college, and she feels at home in its unique combo of wackiness and environmental activism. Sara has been passionate about green living since she was a teenager sneaking recycle bins into the classrooms of teachers reluctant to follow the three Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle. Now as a mom of two energetic girl sprites disguised as children (aged 2 and 4) Sara spends her days balancing green living priorities with the realities of being a busy mom (kale in the mac n’ cheese!). You can read about her adventures in green living on her blog, greenmindedmama.com.


  1. Fantastic article and let’s be honest, their world is really so much better than ours. We just need to slow down enough to join them in it!

Comments are closed.