“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”

– Mr. Rogers

“Play is the work of children.”

– Jean Piaget

Just as nature provides an enriching environment for children with ADHD, play offers a unique space for children to express, connect, and thrive. It’s more than just fun; it’s a fundamental tool that nurtures development and enhances the bond between children and their caregivers. In children with ADHD, connection can feel tricky, communication is sometimes a challenge, and fear of negative feedback can limit asking for help. For these reasons and more, carving out the time as a parent to play can provide wonderful benefits.

Play between siblings, play between friends, and independent play is also incredibly valuable. But, today the focus is to support ADHD by strengthening connections between caregivers and children through play. We know that connection is a significant support tool in our ADHD toolbox, check out this post for more. As parents, if we want to use the power of connection as a support, play is such a wonderful option. Let’s explore the benefits and some strategies for utilizing this tool.

“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”

– Kay Redfield Jamison

Benefits of Parent/Child Play for Children with ADHD

Emotional Regulation: Play provides an avenue for children with ADHD to express their feelings, helping them navigate and process emotions. Playing with a parent provides a safe partner to process with.

Development of Coping Skills: Play introduces and reinforces coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills. Play can be a great and safe way for parents to teach and practice coping skills. Try modelling a coping strategy in the voice of a doll, speaking a personal mantra out loud when navigating losing or turn-taking, and verbalizing personal boundaries if play starts to feel out of hand.

adhd and play

Safe Exploration: Play allows children to explore roles that they have been curious about and encourages empathy through role-switching. Sometimes children will pick a role and try out behaviours that they have been struggling to navigate, watching for you as the role model to demonstrate an appropriate response. This can feel less intense than sharing an uncomfortable situation they are trying to process at school.

adhd and play

Strengthened Relationships: Play fosters a deeper bond between parents and children, creating trust, understanding, and shared experiences. Shared worlds, imaginations, and fun solidify bonds and strengthen attachment. Try creating a special game that is just for you and your child.

Social Skills Practice: Play with parents enables children with ADHD to practice communication, cooperation, turn-taking, and fairness with the safety of a partner who loves them unconditionally.

Cognitive Growth: Through imaginative play, children enhance their problem-solving abilities and creativity. Play truly is the work of childhood, children learn boundaries, resiliency, and how things work when they are most motivated and engaged. Play is an opportunity to boost motivation to learn and practice new skills including managing impulsivity, academic skills such as math or reading, and decision-making.

Boosted Self-Esteem: Successes in play activities bolster a child’s confidence and self-worth. Children with ADHD often struggle with negative feedback, play with a parent is an opportunity to engage and connect without correction. Try games that you know your child is good at to maximize this benefit.

adhd and play

Communication of Fears and Worries: Through role-playing and expressive play, children communicate their fears, allowing parents to understand and support them. The stress of sharing hard things can feel insurmountable for a child with ADHD who feels their emotions intensely. Sharing a fear that belongs to a character in a game is a way to test the waters and a technique used in play therapy.

Strategies to Support Play

Set Your Intention

One of the main goals of playing with our children is to foster connection. Despite this goal or intention, we sometimes need help to communicate this. Here are a few ways to clearly show your child that you are here for them and fully present:

1. Put away your phone and turn off other screens such as the TV

2. Ensure other distractions such as food cooking, other siblings, and work are set aside for at least 10-15 minutes of focused play.

3. Allow your child to take the lead by allowing them to choose and be in charge. As long as their choices are safe, play is a great place for children to feel in control.

adhd and play

4. Actively listen and use language to show that you are engaged. Try paraphrasing back what they have said to reinforce what you heard, or if the game is more physical try sharing a play-by-play of the action.

5. Provide praise to celebrate their achievements during play.

6. Set aside specific ‘playtimes’ to ensure consistency.

Methods of Play to Try

Age-appropriate board games or puzzles can be used to teach coping skills, turn-taking, problem-solving, and other cooperative social skills.

“Small world” style toys or puppets allow children to create worlds, imagine, and engage in social-emotional development play. See small-world examples below.

Dress-up and role-play allow children to explore different personas, situations, or feelings.

Building and construction toys are a common ADHD favourite, they encourage building, destruction, reconstruction, and creative problem-solving.

adhd and play

Physical play such as wrestling, chasing, dancing, and playground play help children to regulate through movement and energy exertion. They also help to develop problem-solving, spatial awareness, teamwork, communication, and setting boundaries. NOTE: Physical play can also put strain on struggles with impulsivity, and emotional regulation, and can lead to overstimulation. Ensuring that safety expectations, emotional boundaries, and how to end the game are clearly stated ahead of time will help keep the games fun.

Sensory play such as playdough, slime, or bubbles can be soothing, support sensory processing, and allow for connection and sharing through conversation while simultaneously feeling calm and supported.

Nature play often allows us parents to engage with the most regulated and happy versions of our children. Nature boosts moods, reduces stress, and supports nervous system regulation allowing us to increase our chances of a positive play experience.

Creating art together allows children to express themselves through art. Drawing, colouring, or sculpting can be therapeutic and provide opportunities to gain insights into what your child is feeling.

adhd and play

Try to Avoid

There is so much beautiful learning that organically happens during play, but sometimes as adults, we try too hard to “force it” and in the process, we lose the fun and spontaneity. To keep the connection strong, the experience fun, and the play organic, try to avoid the following.

1. Over-structuring or dictating the play: This puts us as parents in control instead of our children and it reduces the opportunities for organic fun and free expression.

2. Asking too many questions: Try to just go along with their lead and let it unfold, sometimes play is intuitive and children don’t actually know how to articulate the why, just that they want to.

3. Focusing on the negative: If your child is getting overstimulated or starting to be too silly try reducing your engagement until they get back on track and then join back in with enthusiasm, this approach is called “feed the good” and “starve the bad.” Taking the time to very clearly outline any safety expectations ahead of time can help this.

4. Negative commentary or criticisms during playtime: Children with ADHD already receive a disproportionate amount of negative criticism, to receive the connected benefits that make play worth the time investment keeping things positive is really important.

adhd and play


Sometimes play between parent and child doesn’t immediately come naturally, here are my top recommendations when you have carved out time for play and instead of playing your child doesn’t seem to know what to do.

Model, Lead, Release Control: Yes I said to let your child lead the play…

But, what if your child doesn’t know how to play with the toys that you have purchased for them, or what if your child is new to imaginative play in a nature space with no toys?

Try this sequence:

  • Model Play: Demonstrate how to use toys or engage in activities. Children often mimic adult behaviours. Show them some options of how they could play in this environment.
  • Lead: Encourage your child to join you and lead the play by creating the story, building a sample structure, or starting the fairy house. Give your child helpful roles to fulfill
  • Release Control: As your child grows more confident start to offer to help them and slowly switch roles from leader to follower. You can also finish one game and then encourage them to start the next one, setting them up to lead.

Play Alongside: Sometimes a child doesn’t want to relinquish any control and doesn’t really want you to play with them directly. In this case, try engaging in parallel play. Be present and participate in their play activities, but alongside with your own set of supplies.

Try Try Again: If your attempts have been unsuccessful try different methods of play until you find one that works. Board games are often my go-to suggestion for a child that is resistant to playing with family members as they are designed to be multiplayer events.

adhd and play

Understand that Play is a Form of Communication:

Children, especially those with ADHD, often communicate through play. A doll might represent a friend, a toy soldier might embody their fears, and a drawing might depict their dreams. It’s imperative for parents to ‘listen’ to this language, as it offers insights into their child’s world.

“Through observing children at play, we recognize what their worries, concerns, and fantasies are. We learn about their basic needs, their feelings of love and anger, their rivalries and fears of failure, their secret wishes and desires. ”

– Dorothy and Jerome Singer

Small World Toys are Awesome

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” – Mr. Rogers

“Small World play” is a term used in early childhood education and play therapy to describe a type of play where children use miniatures or small toy figures and objects to create scenes, scenarios, or reenact real-life situations. Small World toys, therefore, are the materials and miniatures used to facilitate this type of imaginative play.

There are so many benefits to Small World play and no this kind of play is not just for preschoolers. I have seen children loving, imagining, and expressing through Small World play right into their tween years. The figures may change from wooden Waldorf toys to American Girl dolls, barbies, tabletop role-play game pieces (think D&D), advanced Lego sets, or modelling sets, but the expressive world creation is the same.

adhd and play

Small World play nurtures imagination by providing a controlled environment to explore. Language skills are developed as children articulate narratives and dialogues. Social skills are developed as children cooperate, negotiate, and resolve conflicts either by re-enacting situations they have been thinking about or as they play with their playmates or parents. Small World play also provides an environment for children to explore and process complicated emotions and themes.

Small World Toy Examples:

  • Miniature Figures: People, animals, mythical creatures, etc.
  • Vehicles: Cars, trucks, boats, airplanes, and more.
  • Buildings: Houses, garages, castles, farms, and other structures.
  • Scenery: Trees, mountains, bodies of water, roads, bridges, etc.
  • Furniture and Accessories: Miniature tables, chairs, beds, food items, and other tiny representations of real-world objects.
adhd and play

My personal favourite Small World toys as a mom of daughters:

*I am not linking these recommendations on purpose. Sometimes I feel like as soon as I link to a brand, that it looks sponsored or that I am encouraging spending. Small World play can be built with miniatures as simple as painted rocks, anything you can find secondhand, or the higher ticket items that I recommend collecting over time.

As a mom that prioritizes Small World play these are my top items:

Maileg Mice – These are $$$, to the point that I almost don’t want to share them. But, they are magic and have been played with more and outlasted just about anything else in our home. Both my 10 year old and 5 year old play with them equally. They are so beloved that they are one of the very few things that came with us on a year-long sabbatical in Mexico.

Schleich Animals – The thing I love about the Schleich world is that most of their toys use the same scale so that as you build out your collection they all work well in relation to each other. My girls have collected many of the horses and magical creatures over the years at birthdays and holidays. We also purchase figures to represent our pets and other animals in our life including the pets and farm animals of friends. As our beloved family dog approaches his 14th year purchasing a mini version of him and his doggy parents was important for play now and in the future.

Lego – Lego is the OG of Small World play. I personally love the classic sets as they allow so much creativity.

Wooden Blocks and Silk Scarves – Every Small World needs a setting. I like items that can be used for multiple setups. To avoid the high cost of Waldorf Silk Scarves I dyed plain ones and have collected scarves from thrift stores. Scarves work well as grass, water, and mountains. Wooden blocks can be built into buildings, roads, horse paddocks, and more.


For children with ADHD, play isn’t merely about having fun. It’s about growth, connection, and understanding. As parents, our role is to provide the right environment and tools, guide them when necessary, and most importantly, to join them in this magical journey of play.

Thank you for joining me on this exploration into the world of play. May your days be filled with joy, connection, and the delightful laughter of playful moments.

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