There are a lot of great minds that have come together in their appreciation of play. Plato said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” and designer Kate Spade contributes that, “Playing dress up begins at age five and never truly ends”. Albert Einstein concludes, “Play is the highest form of research”. And as a play therapist, I happen to think there is a lot that we can learn about a child through play.
We use play to connect to our children from the beginning. Simple games such as peekaboo show our child that when we leave, we also return, which is an important message of security that a baby needs. We sing songs to our children to lift them up or calm them down. Singing can create a loving ritual or soothe a crying child. When a child smiles and we smile, we are communicating without words.
Play is about a process that builds a connection. Play has the power to strengthen relationships. When parents play with their child they enter their world, speak their language, and communicate that they matter and are worthwhile. It is the little moments that are meaningful. It’s the simple exchanges that take place. Play does not need to be scheduled, planned or forced. It just happens when you take the time to slow down, be present, and tune in to your child. This means no checking emails, playing Candy Crush, answering a call or sending that message you’ve been meaning to send for days!
How can parents make the most of play?
Let’s consider shifting play from being adult-directed, taught and product-driven to becoming child-led. We can empower our children by stepping back and allowing them to lead the way, to let them explore, create and experiment through play. When a baby babbles and we babble back, we’re following their lead. We can respond by using similar tones, eye contact and facial expressions. A connection is being established as the baby begins to understand that their voice has meaning and that someone is listening to the sounds they make. This encourages an infant to continue attempts to communicate by leading conversations. This back and forth becomes a way of strengthening your bond with your child.
Imagine a toddler playing with blocks. An adult can easily show them how to use these blocks to build a tower, but a child may have something different in mind – they may want to use a block as a telephone, an aeroplane flying in the sky or simply to bash against the floor to listen to the sound it makes. If we lead by example and demonstrate how a tower is built, we’re limiting the play experience. We can empower a child by allowing them to take control to lead themselves to what is meaningful for them.
To get started with child-led play, use phrases such as, “Show me what you want to do” and continue your involvement by tuning into the play and encouraging your child with words such as, “That’s up to you”, “You can decide” or “That can be whatever you want it to be”. Pretend that you don’t know what to do and allow your child to teach you.
Play becomes more complex and sophisticated as children grow and mature physically, socially, intellectually and emotionally. What children experience, including how their parents respond to them, shapes their development as they adapt to the world.
Regardless of age, children enjoy play that is directed by them, with objects of their choice in a way they find interesting. Aside from enjoyment, children are gaining much more from child-led play. They’re learning to confidently voice ideas and they learn what it feels like to have these ideas heard and valued. When we allow children to lead, we’re sending a strong message to our children that because they’re important to us, anything they are interested in is also interesting to us. By following your child’s lead you’re supporting them to become confident at sharing their thoughts and ideas and in turn, this can transfer into other areas of their life, helping them to feel capable and secure.
Your relationship with your child is the foundation of his or her healthy development. Being an observer allows us to see into the world of our children, understanding what they’re thinking, how they’re coping and what they find interesting. Children play through what they know and what they want to know more about. We are seeing them develop their personality and character.
When does play become therapeutic?
There are so many types of play – exploratory, imaginative and manipulative, to name a few. Therapeutic play takes child-led play a few steps further. Imagine this scenario: on a rainy morning, a child waits for his school bus to arrive. On the way to school he witnesses a taxi crash into a mini bus. He continues to think about the crash on his way to school. He arrives at school, distracted and withdrawn. His teacher watches him from across the classroom as he uses each of his hands to crash into each other over and over again. He continues to repeat this play over and over again until he doesn’t need to any more.
It is often difficult for children to express what they feel with words.
Play can be the tool that a child needs to work through feelings and difficulties. Perhaps re-enacting the car accident allowed him to make sense of this experience or to understand the reality of what he observed.
For this child, the car accident was a minor event, an experience that he was able to process on his own, at his own pace, in a safe environment, using play. Consider an event in a child’s life that takes much longer to process, is buried deep because it’s too difficult to comprehend or is compounded by a series of events. These experiences are too difficult to process without support.
Adults who attend therapy use words to express themselves, children use play. In play therapy, children do not have to talk about their problems to feel better; children can communicate through the use of toys and art materials. Play that is self-initiated, self-led and uninterrupted, without assumptions or expectations, can be highly beneficial to a child’s development.
Filial play is a branch of play therapy that includes a parent in the process. Play is used as the glue that children need when they’re feeling insecure; it helps them to feel more connected to their parent. In filial play, parents become the primary agent of change as they learn to conduct child-centred play sessions with their own children to develop communication and build positive interactions.
Through play, challenging moments are often the times when children learn the most about themselves and when parents learn most about their children.