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The Play Gap: Why Low-Income Fathers Aren’t Encouraged to Play

Play with dad could help bridge cognitive, social and emotional learning gaps among low-income children.

Steve Mays/Flickr

Natasha J. Cabrera is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, College of Education at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on father involvement and children’s social and cognitive development; adaptive and maladaptive factors related to parenting; ethnic and cultural variations in family processes, including fathering and mothering; and the mechanisms that link early experiences to children’s school readiness.

  • Research suggests that time spent playing with dad offers children an outsized developmental benefit
  • Father play is the prime example of a capacity underappreciated culturally and underutilized from a policy perspective.

Fathers play with their children in ways that mothers and peers do not. Decades of research suggest that time spent playing with dad offers children an outsized developmental benefit. Unfortunately, this profound ability is often culturally undervalued. Especially in poorer communities where time is at a premium, fathers are expected to primarily play the role of the provider. A “pay and play” model makes far more sense.

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Many low-income fathers do not believe in the value of the time they spend playing with their kids or that they have a particular set of meaningful skills that create a real responsibility to roughhouse. In fact, rolling around on the couch and the floor prepares children for school and socialization, laying a foundation of emotional learning and emotional regulation. Roughhousing with dad is associated with learning how to keep your emotions in check and manage social relationships. This learning is then transferred to peer relationships and it is vital for a successful adult life.

Research shows that play with dad can deliver elements of child development that mom might not offer as much or as often. Although moms can also roughhouse, dads do it more often and can be very enjoyable for dad and child to engage in this type of play.

Part of the reason is that fathers act as challenging communication partners for children from an early age, aiding cognitive development. They tend to speak to their children differently from the way mothers do. Dads pose more questions that require conversation and do not “baby” their speech when talking to young children. They particularly use wh-questions, such as ‘what, why, who, when’. These types of questions encourage complex responses from children, boosting their vocabulary and language. Such skills can then provide pathways for enhanced development of verbal reasoning.

The following originally appeared in a different format on the Child & Family Blog, transforming research on cognitive, social, and emotional development and family dynamics into policy and practice

This is true of low-income fathers as well. This is why play has the potential to reduce inequalities between children growing up in less-resourced environments.

Lower-income fathers also seem to engage in meaningful rough and tumble play that support children’s social and emotional learning. Indeed, in the context of play, low-income fathers often exceed their middle-class peers. Many low-income dads are invested and motivated to make sure their children have the best chance to achieve a good life and whether or not they understand the specific value of play, they come to understand that it is something meaningful that they can offer.

This is good news for policymakers and social scientists who wish to bridge the stubborn cognitive development gap between low- and higher-income children that emerges even before kindergarten.

It’s important to resist simple narratives. Not all low-income families are toxically poor and inadequate as parents. Many have the capacity through positive interactions with their children to mitigate the negative effects of poverty on children’s cognitive development, providing the next generation an opportunity to succeed in educational settings, which are a path towards economic opportunity.

Father play is the prime example of a capacity underappreciated culturally and underutilized from a policy perspective. Helping dads find time to play with their children should be a meaningful policy goal. As of now, it is not. Roughhousing dads are largely absent from conversations about child development and human capital.

Unfortunately, it is hard to legislate for play. But policymakers can tell fathers, their partners, and the public some facts from well-established research about early childhood development. And they can provide opportunities for father play and encourage fathers not just to provide for their children but also to engage in positive and meaningful interactions, including play. They can also offer policies and programs that include parental leave when a child is born or when a father needs time off work to attend to his child’s needs.

If, for example, authorities insist that dads pay child support after parental breakups while limiting visitation time, they’re letting children down and robbing them of the opportunity for fathers to provide emotional support for children. If Head Start talks exclusively about helping moms, it diminishes fathers’ opportunities to support their kids in the little free time they do have.  If leave arrangements keep fathers home only during infancy, companies are doing their working dads a disservice.

If fathers are going to “pay and play,” we must rethink how “responsible” fatherhood is defined and how fathers should be supported not just to support their children financially but also emotionally.