How Do Dads Play?

We Know Play Is Good For Us All. 

Jennifer Cooper Has Some Ideas on Games Dads Play.

I was with my husband and mother-in-law at a field day event at our kids’ school.

My mother-in-law leaned over to me and said, “It’s so nice to see fathers take such an active role in parenting. It wasn’t like that in my generation.”

I looked around. And you know what, there were indeed a lot of dads around. At first, I hadn’t considered this strange. Then I thought about the differences between our parents’ generation and this one. Today, fathers are given more freedom to be engaged with their children. Fathers attend PTA meetings, are stay-at-home parents, help with homework and household chores. And most importantly, they play and connect with their kids.

But how do today’s fathers play? Do they go for nostaglia? Do they opt for creative? Or do they prefer more physical play? Turns out its as varied as the idea of play itself.

Hillbilly Babies

This one comes from my husband Dave whose father played it with him and his brother when they were little. Basically, it’s hide-n-seek but instead of saying, “Ready or not, here I come!” the father yells, “Where are those hillbilly babies, I’m gonna get ’em!” Then when he finds the kids, he tickles them. Then the hillbilly babies run back for the hills and hide again.

Alligator, Rolling Pin and Mayhem

On, Photographer John Dolan shares three games  he made up to play with his kids on Saturday mornings. The first uses the bed as an island, the second is a lot like steam roller, and the last is just good ol’ fashion rough housing.

Super Hero or Secret Agent

Chicago-area father, Aaron Logue and his son created a game together while driving in the car. Each creates a fictitious super hero or special agent. As they drive and look out the car window, each imagines his “guy” jumping over stuff, overcoming obstacles, running alongside the car. There’s a running dialogue and everyone gets a chance to compares notes on where they would hide, what they’d use to get over a building, etc.


Photographer and blogger Ryan Marshall plays a game with his daughter he made up called fish. He writes:

in an effort to make bath time with Tessa end in those magic belly laughs of hers, instead of tears, I started this thing with her where I tell her the towel is my fishing net, and I scoop her up into it out of the water and yell out, “Are you a fish? Or a little girl? Because I can’t tell.” and then I will say, “If you’re a little girl and not a fish, then you surely have legs! Let me see you use your legs.” and Tessa will start to dance like a maniac. And we laugh, and I say, “Oh there you are little girl. I thought you use your legs.” and Tessa will start to dance like a maniac. And we laugh, and I say, “Oh there you are little girl. I thought you were a fish the way you love that water.”

—Photo yancy9a/Flickr

About Jennifer Cooper

As a kid, I would dress up like a hobo for no apparent reason, paint my face like KISS, build elaborate forts, and once I transformed our dining room into a giant library.

Now, I design toys for Ellie Bellie Kids and write about parenting, childhood and creativity at Classic Play!


  1. All the dads I referenced in this piece are “working” not stay-at-home dads. The whole dinner and divorce thing are separate issues to this piece entirely and I’m sure can be better explored by someone other than me.

    But I do think a timeline of how interactions have changed (or haven’t) over the years would be interesting. Perhaps GMP will develop that?

    Thanks for the conversation. You presented a new angle.

  2. “Today, fathers are given more freedom to be engaged with their children.”

    Who exactly has bestowed this “freedom” on fathers such that they now have permission to be engaged with their children? When was this enacted?

    A generation ago, when families actually ate together, who was that man sitting there talking with the family? A generation ago, who was it that played catch with the kids, taught them to ride their bikes, helped with math homework, science projects, work on the car? Who was it that taught them how to drive, deal with bullies at school, on and on?

    Way back in the 50’s and 60’s there were shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. Were those fathers not engaged?

    The impression given here consistently is that before 1980, fathers went to work, came home without acknowledging the kids, watched TV and went to bed. This is such a silly and inaccurate stereotype.

    • About that sentence… I agree. It needs to be reworked. What I was trying to do with this piece, but apparently was not successful in articulating, was to celebrate the way some of today’s dads play with their kids. My intention wasn’t to denigrate fathers of the past.

      Before I go though, I have to ask, you mentioned that there were stereotypes of what fathers were like prior to the 80s, but then you used two television shows that were pretty stereotypical as an illustration. Can you add a personal anecdote to this conversation of how your dad played with you or you played with your kids? I think it would help shape the conversation.

      • Your article is very nice.  Thanks for contributing it.

        The stereotypes I alluded to are propagated on feminist websites; suggesting that the best and only truly “engaged” fathers are stay at home dads.  There are plenty of articles here that promote that as an ideal.

        The stereotype they insist is reality is that our fathers and grandfathers were not engaged fathers, perhaps because they didn’t cook as much, etc .  Though it might be true that more fathers than ever cook and clean, I would argue that our fathers and grandfathers were more engaged on average because they were more likely to still be married and living in the home, for one thing.

        It’s not possible to be as engaged with children if they don’t live with you full time.  Furthermore, the now antiquated and all but abandoned practice of eating dinner together enabled our fathers and grandfathers to engage with their children.

        My dad taught me to ride a bike, played with us in the dark, took us to the park, played basketball with us, played board games with us,(as I am told) did the throw the kid up in the air and catch him/her thing that fathers and kids love but scares mothers, and whatever else we wanted to do. 

        I have two girls. I do the rough and tumble running (tag) and falling, wrestling, ticking, crazy-type play with them and they love it.  I actually do most of the play.  I even do tea parties with them, whatever it takes, whatever they like, I will do. Their mom does plenty of things with them too but we have different styles.

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