Newswise — MANHATTAN, Kansas — A Kansas State University family therapist has one word for parents who want to raise a healthy, happy child: Play.

"We find that parents lose the ability to play," Nancy O'Conner said.

O'Conner is director of the Kansas State University Family Center, which provides clinical services to the Manhattan community. She supervises graduate student interns in the marriage and family therapy program. She also is a play therapist and a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist.

"Learning the ABCs is important and children need the opportunity for free play. That's where parent and child interact, make noises, play dress up, chase each other in games of tag, get down on the floor together and play," she said.

Why is play so important?

O'Conner said play encourages the mastery and development of the crucial C's: courage, capable, connect, count.

"We want parents to help their children feel brave, to feel that they can do things, that they belong and that they matter," she said.

Children who have courage believe they can face challenges and are resilient, the therapist said. They feel more positive about themselves, that they matter because they count.

From these very first relationships, children learn to treat others how they are treated and to feel they belong. That feeling of attachment is one of the most important criteria for being a mentally healthy adult, she said.

With these tools, a child will be more adept at handling potential future problems such as bullying, peer pressure and transitions. Children will have the internal resources to handle many situations that they may encounter, O'Conner said.

She suggests how can parents can relearn to play and why:

• Focus attention on the child. Turn off the electronics. Ignore the dirty dishes or briefcase full of work. "It doesn't matter how busy you are, don't sacrifice playtime with your child," she advised. "When a child gets full, undivided attention, he learns he is valued and he will grow up valuing others."

• Enjoy each other. Create traditions for yourself and your child that are specially yours. "Playtime should be joyful," she said. "Play is a time when a child doesn't have to perform so use other time to learn colors."

• Use the child's language. For example, a baby's language is sounds, gestures and expressions. "Pay attention to what the baby is telling you by crying, or smiling, or turning away," she said. Learn to understand that language and meet the baby's needs. When a parent reacts to a baby's language, the baby feels safe and loved.

When a child feels secure, he will believe he can accomplish more — walking, singing, throwing a ball, reading a book — and continue to develop. He will take that feeling of security with him into adulthood, O'Conner said.

"When we give children the tools very early in life, they will feel connected, learn how to treat others and how to respond to others, feel challenged," O'Conner said.

Week of the Young Child, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children April 12-18, focuses on the foundation for a child's success in school and later life.

Through research, scholarship, teaching and outreach, the faculty in the College of Human Ecology continually seeks ways to nurture healthy children and families. The Family Center, part of the School of Family Studies and Human Services, is one of the college's facilities for training graduate students in marriage and family therapy.