Tips to Help Dads (and Moms) Engage with Preschoolers

July 22, 2020

Posted by Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

Rob Adams, Psy.D.

We are wired to want to be good at what we do, including our job as a parent, but what do we do if it doesn’t always come naturally? Some Dads love to talk with their preschoolers, while others don’t know where to start. Some Dads connect with their middle schooler, while others can’t stand to hear the latest pre-teen chatter. A common issue is the discomfort we feel during situations where we feel less competent.

Discomfort or uncertainty leads us to avoid those situations so we don’t feel nervous, embarrassed, or out of place. Unfortunately, that means we might miss out on valuable opportunities to connect with a son or daughter. A father’s involvement has positive effects on social competence, academic outcomes, executive skill development, and other dimensions of mental health.

Here are some strategies to try if you have trouble figuring out how to engage with the preschool crowd.

Child-directed time:

This is critical to child development in multiple ways, but it means a couple things that may be hard for some parents. It means not making a plan. It means you might have to do something you don’t enjoy. It means not taking the lead by making suggestions, giving directions, or even asking directive questions (Are you sure you want to play that game? Can we play with this toy instead?).  Focus on describing, not asking questions or directing. Be focused on the present moment, and show excitement and curiosity.

Bring it down to their level:

My 4-year-old daughter loves to help me do projects, however, she can’t hammer nails, hold the level level, or climb up a ladder. But I can give her jobs that she is big enough to help with, which helps her feel included, learn skills, gain self-efficacy, and it gives us time together. Your preschooler is big enough to do something, so take an extra few minutes to get them involved. Let them match the clean socks, use their toy hammer on the wall, or use the measuring tape. Narrate what they are doing to show you are attuned to them and help them learn new skills along the way.

Find your imagination:

Sometimes parents are too focused on tasks and the here and now, and your child would love for you to get lost in a make believe world. Don’t worry if that doesn’t come naturally, you have a guide that is an expert at exploring and learning through play and fantasy. Follow his or her lead, accept feelings of discomfort, and get creative. Take everyday objects and pretend it has a new use. Use goofy voices or sing instead of talk. Perhaps feeling uncomfortable means you’re doing it right.

Rough and tumble:

Physical play can have positive benefits for young boys and girls. Here are some of the skills they learn and you model: give and take interactions; understanding physical boundaries and limits (their own, and the other person’s); learning to read body language; seeing Dad model how to hold back, self-regulate, and not hurt someone less strong; physical nurturance and affection; and physical health benefits.

Be the student:

Ask your child to teach you something. Sure, you might already know it, or you might not enjoy it, but letting them teach is a way to help them learn.


This is one of the most common recommendations I make to parents. I ask them to verbally narrate what they see and feel is happening because it demonstrates they are attuned to the inner and outer world of their child. Describe what they are doing, what their facial expressions are telling you, and how they might be feeling. Keep evaluative statements in check (“It looks like you’re exploring what pieces you have” vs. “It looks like you’ve made a big mess”). If you’re not sure how they’re feeling or what they’re communicating, start with “I wonder” and let them guide you.

Sometimes it’s easy to enjoy something your child likes to do or is good at, but sometimes you may not enjoy it at all. Sometimes you might have to fake it. But if you can show interest now, it sets you up to have ongoing connection in the future as their interests change. Enter their space by trying an activity they enjoy or simply by getting on the floor with them.

Meghan Barlow and Associates is a Rocky River-based practice that offers comprehensive behavioral health services for children and families. Its multi-disciplinary team provides expertise ranging from traditional therapies to bolstering social skills and crafting individualized academic supports.

Topic: Preschool