“Play relieves feelings of stress and boredom, connects us to people in a positive way, stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego.” (Landreth, 2002)
1. Choosing Toys: Children need open ended toys to encourage creativity, critical thinking and expression of the child’s thoughts needs and feelings: anger, fear, sadness, joy, surprise, disgust. Here is a list of toys with open ended therapeutic value; while it is not exhaustive, it is a good place to start:
- Real-Life: Dolls, bottles, doctor kit, phone, dollhouse, family figures, play money, cars, kitchen utensils, a variety of animals, doctor kit
- Aggressive: dart guns, rubber bendy knife, rope, animals, soldiers, bop bag, mask
- Emotional Expression: playdough, crayons, paper, scissors, tape, egg carton, deck of cards, soft foam ball, balloons, magic wand
- I think it is also helpful, though not essential, to have a medium of play, such as a large pan or sensory table of sand, beans, or water to hide, bury or build.
A word about aggressive play and toys: There is a misconception that allowing children to play with aggressive toys such as guns and knives will teach them to be aggressive. But child development research, and play therapy research in particular, shows children need to express their aggressive emotions in play in order to release them, rather than carrying them throughout the day (to school, the grocery store, grandma’s house, etc.).Everyone has negative feelings that need to be accepted, noticed and expressed in healthy ways in order to release them; children are no different. Our job as parents is to guide them toward appropriate expressions of their negative emotions, “you’re really angry and you want to hit mommy, but mommy is not for hitting. You can hit the pillow or you can stomp your feet and say ‘I’m really angry!’” Developing emotional intelligence is key to raising healthy, compassionate and capable children, and play combined with appropriate boundaries teaches them emotional intelligence.
2. Setting the stage for play is important. Chaos in the home creates anxiety in children, whether the chaos is emotional (yelling) or physical (disorganization). Children feel less anxious when toys are organized, rather than scattered or piled up in boxes where they have to dig around to find them. In our home we decided to display certain toys on shelves (2-3 books, paper, markers, blocks, dolls, kitchen) and put specific toys in bins (paint, dress up, soft animals, doll accessories) for space and functionality reasons, but they always go back in the same box and returned to the same place. In addition to decreasing a child’s anxiety, toy organization also increases their ability to access that toy when they seek it out. I quickly discovered that in order for us to get and stay organized we also had to simplify; we gave away many toys and we put the rest away to swap out every few weeks. I’ve also found that displayed toys and boxed toys change over time; your child will lead the way in this matter as well.
3. So how does play "work"? Children want to connect with us and they want know we care about their thoughts, feelings and needs. Play is a wonderful opportunity to do this while also giving them the opportunity to work through the everyday challenges they face. Our role is to allow the child to lead in play while we follow without making suggestions or asking questions. Parents can join in the play when invited or to help a child become interested in play, but children make all the decisions and find their own solutions without our interference. Sometimes this means it’s important to “play dumb” in order to empower our children, “you want me to open that? Hmmmm. Show me what to do.” Our purpose is not to frustrate our children, it is to empower them; our goal is to help children feel capable in the presence of adults who seem capable of doing everything with great ease. Most importantly, this means we need to be present with our child while they play. There are several important ways to demonstrate our attentiveness:
- Body language conveys strong messages, so our body should be facing our child.
- Tracking our children’s play it is a way to let them know we’re present, paying attention, and interested without leading or making suggestions: “you’re stacking those up,” “you’ve decided to put that there.” “you’re thinking about what you want to do next.” When Addi is playing I don’t usually name an object unless she has given it a name. For example, if she’s playing with blocks I don’t call them blocks unless she does - a square block might represent an airplane or a bed. So I just follow her lead.
- Similar to tracking is reflecting our child’s feelings. Reflecting helps our children feel understood and communicates our acceptance of the many feelings they experience no matter how big the feelings. This teaching of emotional intelligence gives children the words they need to recognize and accept their feelings and release them in behaviorally appropriate ways: “you’re excited you got that open,” “You’re sad grammy left,” “you’re angry about losing the game.” The key is to remember that all feelings are acceptable; behaviors sometimes need limits.
- Which brings us to the importance of appropriate limit-setting. No one can play freely if they are first bombarded with a bunch of rules to follow, so it’s important to hold off on stating limits until the moment they are needed. Limits are stated in ways to give children responsibility for their own actions and behaviors: “I know you want to pour water on the baby, but the baby is not for pouring water on. You can pour water on the bush or in the sensory table.” Or “I know you want to throw the jar, but the jar is not for throwing. You can throw the pillow or the ball.” It is equally important to only impose limits necessary to keep everyone safe and the toys intact. Some toys may be okay for destruction (common destructive toys are army men, egg cartons, paper and balloons) – everyone’s threshold for this is different, so you will have to decide what’s right for your family. Be consistent, and remember it’s okay to change your mind, just let your kids know “I made a mistake. I thought I would be okay with you breaking that, but now I’m not okay with it. Let’s play with that gently. You can destroy the egg carton or tear paper instead."
A note on emotional responsiveness: Gary Landreth, a premier therapist and researcher calls upon us parents to “be a thermostat, not a thermometer!” It is our job to reflect the child’s feelings, not take the child’s feelings and make them our own. This can be difficult to do and may take quite a bit of practice. Imagine your child gets very angry and starts to get physically and verbally aggressive. You have two choices, you can absorb her anger and begin shouting back, which escalates everyone’s behavior and leaves you both miserable. Or you can look at her anger without judgment and reflect them back to her “you are feeling really angry with me right now. I know it is really hard to stop when you’re having so much fun.” This responsive statement is empowering for everyone: your child feels heard and understood without feeling attacked, and you remain the calm eye of the storm. No one gets sent to their room, no one’s heart is beating out of their chest, and the relationship remains intact.
Playing with our children and allowing our children to lead play their are two of the greatest gifts we can give them. Whether your child is working through her own "stuff" or just occasionally has an unexplained sullen mood, learning to help our children work through their struggles can benefit both our children and our parent-child relationship. While this is certainly not an exhaustive "how to" article, it can serve as a place to start. For more information or training please check out the books in the resources (listed below) and look for a Filial Training workshop in an area near you.
Need more reasons to believe in play? Play helps children:
· Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.
· Develop new and creative solutions to problems.
· Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.
· Learn to experience and express emotion.
· Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.
· Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.
· Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.
Children can express their troubles in play more easily than they can express their thoughts and feelings verbally: "toys are like a child’s words and play is the child’s language." (G. Landreth). Through play children can learn more appropriate behaviors, encounter the corrective emotional experience necessary for healing, and experience the resolution of inner conflicts or dysfunctional thinking.
Sue C. Bratton, Garry L. Landreth, Theresa Kellam and Sandra R. Blackard, “Child Parent Relationship Therapy (CPRT) Treatment Manual.: (2006).
Garry L. Landreth, “Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.” (2002)
Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross, “Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids.” (2010)
Head over to Play At Home Mom for the full article.