How play can help kids to feel calm, connected, reassured and ready for sleep!

There seems to be a phenomenon where kids get ramped up in the evening, just when it’s time to start “winding down” and getting ready for bed.

They might get super active, extra loud and silly, much to our dismay!

They want to run around, they want jump, they want to play! 

They might do all sorts of things they *know* they shouldn’t do!

And they don’t seem to take any of our requests seriously!

I wonder if you’ve experienced this with your kids?

In a recent post (Setting limits playfully – The “chase and can’t catch” game), I shared about how my son got really active and a bit “silly” about an hour before our bedtime one night last week, and how I used play in a way that ended up helping him to feel calm and content.

So I thought, I’d spend a bit of time exploring this, with a view to helping us understand why kids tend to go a bit silly around this time, how play can meet so many of their needs at this time, as well as why it can be so hard for parents and sometimes get so intense.

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Firstly, I think it can be really helpful to look at what our children’s underlying needs might be at this time of day.

👉 In my experience, the number one need at this time of day seems to be for CONNECTION WITH US PARENTS!

It might be that our kids haven’t had that much of our undivided attention that day, or perhaps they are just wanting another boost of connection in preparation for the separation of sleep (even if they cosleep with us, falling asleep can be a kind of separation).

And often after dinner they start to show us this need for connection. It may come in the form of whinging, whining, or other “off track” behaviour. It may come as avoidance of doing the things we are asking them to do to prepare for bed. Or it may come more directly in them asking us to play with them.

Of course, connected parent-child PLAY is one of the most effective and efficient ways of strengthening our connection with our kids, especially when it involves shared laughter! And even if they aren’t asking us to play, it can be one of the most helpful ways we can respond!

👉 The next biggest need our kids might have at this time of day is TO OFFLOAD STRESS, TENSION OR OTHER UNCOMFORTABLE FEELINGS that they have accumulated during the day.

They might have had any number of uncomfortable feelings come up for them in reaction to their day-to-day activities and interactions, or perhaps there might be bigger stressors affecting your family or community.

And they might show us that they have these uncomfortable feelings by complaining or being generally negative in their attitude, or even by becoming hyperactive or aggressive. Or instead, if we’re lucky, they might request to play in a way that will help them to offload these feelings.

LAUGHTER is a powerful way for kids to free themselves of stress and discomfort at the end of the day. Research shows that laughter can reduce the level of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) and increases the production of endorphins, which are the chemicals in the brain that improve mood and act as natural painkillers.

Power reversal games, where we parents act like the slower, weaker, less competent one can be particularly effective at eliciting this kind of laughter. Try a game of ‘chase’ where you just can’t manage to catch them no matter how hard you try! Or wrestling where they just keeping winning and you are amazed at their strength! (I would recommend these kind of games as opposed to tickling, which can actually increase stress.)

👉 We also can’t overlook the possible need for PHYSICAL ACTIVITY at this time of day.

Many kids might have spent a lot of the day sitting down, perhaps at school and then later while doing homework, maybe in the car on the way to and from school and other activities, or having plopped down in front of the TV or computer at the end of the day.

It’s no wonder that they want to jump and run and climb at this time of day!

Vigorous physical activity is also another way that stress hormones in the body can be metabolised. So physical activity, especially in the form of parent-child connected play, can be a great way to support our kids to “let off steam” towards the end of the day, helping their bodies to feel more relaxed, and their minds to feel more calm.

👉 So when kids get silly and want to engage in active rough and tumble, laughter-inducing, play with us at this time of day, it seems that they know intuitively that this can actually help them to feel less stressed, more connected, and generally more comfortable, in preparation for sleep.

Before I talk about the last need I believe kids can have at this time of day, I want to reflect on how us parents can be feeling as parents at this time of day.

Often we are tired, exhausted even, from having been busy all day, racing from one commitment to the next, or perhaps even just having spent a lot of the day with our children without a break. And, as parents, it’s quite likely that we didn’t have enough sleep the night before!

So by this time of day, we can feel pretty spent.

It might also be that, with all our other responsibilities throughout the day, we haven’t taken the time to do things that really bring us alive, that nourish us, energise us, fill our own cups. So we can be feeling empty, in terms of our spirit.

Finally, not unlike our kids, we can have accumulated a lot of stress and tension throughout the day. We might have been triggered at different points throughout the day, and have uncomfortable emotions still hanging around.

We may not have received the emotional support we can so benefit from day-to-day, or developed the strategies to support ourselves with these uncomfortable feelings.

👉 Being tired, empty, stressed or full of our own uncomfortable feelings, can make it really hard to “be with” our children.

Instead, at about this time of day, we might start to reach for our phones a bit more, turn on the TV, or even get busy doing housework, in order to manage our own feelings and avoid having to be present with our kids and their needs.

I wonder how many of you can relate to this feeling of just being “done” at this time of day?

Alternatively, it might just be that we are too run off our feet, making dinner, preparing the next day’s lunches, and attending to all the things that busy parents need to do these days, to be present with our kids at this time of day.

Or it might be a combination of both, multi-tasking between being busy and being distracted!

And our children can sense our flagging level of availability. They can sense that we are tired, stressed, distracted, busy, or just kind of “gone”.

This brings me to the final need that I feel kids can have at this time of day …

👉 They can start to feel a bit unsettled about our lack of presence, and this can trigger a need for REASSURANCE that we are still there for them. In some ways, whether by “off track” behaviour or an invitation to play, they are “pinging” us for a response.

And when, in response to a child’s bid for reassurance, in whatever form it comes, they do not get what they are seeking, they might unconsciously up the ante. They really want to know that we are still there for them.

The longer we go on not meeting their need, the more unsettled they feel, and the more rambunctious they can become in an attempt to get that reassurance, which can get really overwhelming for us parents!

This cycle can go some way to explaining why kids always seem to get their most unsettled and active at just the moment that we are least resourced to respond to it!

Fortunately, connected parent-child play, can be one of the most powerful ways of reassuring our kids that we are right there with them, supporting them to feel safe, calm and connected enough to relax into sleep. 

❓ Do your kids get more active and silly right before bed?

❓What do you think your children’s needs are likely to be at this time of day?


EDITED TO ADD: In response to this post about pre-bedtime play, I had a few people saying things like, “Yeah, that sounds great – BUT play is the last thing I feel like doing at that time of day!”.

So, in my next post, I give you some strategies that I believe can be helpful in meeting all of the needs that might be present at this time of day! Both kids’ needs, and those of us poor weary parents!

You can read that one here: What to do when you don’t feel like playing

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