As a family therapist who works with predominantly younger children (ages 5-12), I spend a lot of time doing things that look very different from the traditional “talk therapy” approaches that are often used with adults and adolescents. On any given day you may find me jumping, sword-fighting, playing with puppets, ripping paper, or knocking over blocks with the myriad young clients that find their way into my office . Each of these activities are examples of play therapy, an often very effective therapeutic approach with children.
Why is this unique form of therapy so effective with children? Well, it is because children’s primary language is play. It is the means by which children make sense of their inner and outer worlds, express themselves, develop new neural connections, and process their reactions to the many (if not always) uncontrollable things that happen around them. It is the way in which they both create and destroy, take and lose control, and connect with themselves and connect with other people. It really is a beautifully meaningful process (although the smeared paint on the walls and the explosion of doll clothes or painfully sharp plastic pieces on the floor may not always reflect it, I’ll give you that .)
Let’s consider the following scenario: Your three year daughter is happily stacking blocks by herself on the floor when suddenly your six year old son flies into the room using his superhero cape and very intentionally knocks them down. You ask him, “Why did you do that?!” and he gives a rather blank face and shrugs, “I don’t know!” I can’t honestly tell you what is taking place in his mind in that moment, but in my experience I can say that many times children truly don’t know why they do the things they do. They feel strong impulses (ie. create, destroy, hide/protect) and act on them in a pure and simple manner. When we take this into account, then, why? becomes much less helpful and interesting a question than what?. What happened. What did I observe. What information does this give me. What? reveals that this child felt a nearly uncontrollable need to destroy that tower of blocks. He’s communicating “I feel aggression. I need to destroy something.”
And this is where the power of play comes in; through play, children are able to take their own emotions and impulses and worries and channel them into their toys and characters. The need to throw a tantrum is reduced when the stuffed animal cat is allowed to flail and meow and cry loudly. The need to push another child is reduced when two super heroes engage in epic battle. The need to regress to infantile self-soothing (ie. thumb sucking) can be mitigated as children use play-dough or sand or a soft blanket as a soothing object. I don’t mean to suggest that play is a cure-all for all childhood misbehaviors, sorrows, or conditions—it is not. However, when combined with effective positive discipline, warmth and affection from caregivers, and proper self-regulation skills it can become very growth-inducing indeed.
As a parent, I am sure that you often wish that you can spend more time with you child(ren). Of course, life throws up so many hurdles–demanding work schedules, necessary household tasks, extracurricular activities and homework, fatigue, etc. Perhaps the children themselves express greater preference for the gaming console or tablet. Perhaps you have forgotten what it is to really play: open-endedly, vulnerably, creatively. Whatever the reason, I hope to provide several ideas here for how you can engage your child(ren) in play that is fun, healing, and fosters connection.
Non-directive play essentially gives the child complete control over the content, pacing, and direction of play. It looks different depending on the age and development of the child, but usually features a lot of verbal reflection on what you observe the child doing or physical reaction to what they instigate. Non-directive play with a 5-year old might look something like this:
Parent: Okay, what are we going to play today?
Child: (Hands the parent a costume and sword) Play!
Parent: What do I do with these? Who am I?
Child: You’re the bad guy! Chase me!
Parent: (Begins to chase child)
Child: No! Not like that! You’re in a car. No, you’re on a horse!
Parent: Oh! I’m on a horse. Okay! I’m coming to get you! (Whispers) What do I do next?
Child: You need to arrest that dog.
Parent: Okay, but I don’t have anything to restrain him with. Mmmm, I wonder what I could use.
Child: Use this rope. Watch out! He’s a mean dog.
Parent: Whew, thanks for your help! Watch out! He’s a really mean dog.
I personally am a strong advocate for aggressive play, as I feel like children today do not have a lot of outlets for natural, healthy aggression. Anger, frustration, and aggression are normal, powerful feelings that affect everyone, and it is unrealistic to expect children to eradicate them without providing some sort of outlet. For many children, sports, martial arts, physical outdoor play, and artistic endeavors all serve as appropriate and healthy outlets for aggression. Similarly, you can provide safe, structured, and controlled activities for your children that give them permission to feel the intensity of their feelings without losing control. Aggressive play might include building and knocking down a block structure repeatedly, ripping pieces of paper, hitting a cushion with an inflatable baseball bat, popping bubble wrap, smashing play dough, or stomping. This is effective when boundaries are provided by a caregiver. For example,
Parent: You look really angry right now. I know that you want to invite your friend over, but we can’t do it today. But let’s figure out what to do with all that anger before it explodes. Quick! Let’s yell into this pillow as loud at we can for 10 seconds.
Parent: I can see that you really want to keep hitting your sister. We can’t do that anymore because hands are not for hitting. Why don’t you go get your T-Rex. Who does he want to eat? Me? Do you think he wants to chase me? Wow! He sounds really hungry.
Mirroring play is powerful because it doesn’t have to be verbal. It works particularly well with children younger than three, children that might have various developmental or intellectual delays, or children that seem disengaged. It simply involves mirroring what the child is doing. If they are reading a book under the table, grab an additional book and sit next to them. If they are driving cars around a track, grab some separate cars and start your own street scene. You might begin a game of copy-cat: mirror their facial expressions or body positioning or noises. With older children, it might just be sitting by their side and reading while they read or drawing as they draw. Whatever the age, this simple action sends a very clear message: I see you as you are. I accept you as you are. I’m meeting you at your level. We’re here together.
As the name might suggest, structured play involves direction, guidance, rules, and may often incorporate some sort of learning objective. This type of play includes organized sports, board games, puzzles, and games or activities that require following directions (ie. freeze tag, Simon Says, cooking together, folding socks). Structured play is very important for preschool-aged children as it helps them develop fine motor skills, problem-solving and reasoning skills, and communication skills. For school-aged children, such structured activities continue to improve communication and reasoning skills, build teamwork, and teach important lessons about winning/losing, following directions, and boundary setting. It is worth noting that structure and consistency–regardless of the type of play or activity–are crucial for children’s success and well-being. Here are some ways that you can provide structure to your children’s play:
Parent of an 8 year old: It’s so great to see you when I get home from work! I’d really love to do something fun with you. I’m going to set the timer for 30 minutes and during that entire time you can decide what we will do. But when the timer runs out I will need to stop playing and start making dinner.
Parent of a 3 year old: It looks like you’re having a really great time on the slide! I just want to let you know that you can play for 5 more minutes and then it’s time for us to go.
5 minutes later. Alright son. Five minutes are up. It’s time for us to go now. It’s sad to leave the park, isn’t it? Let’s say goodbye to the park. “Bye park! See you tomorrow!”
While I imagine that many of these techniques are already familiar, my hope is that you begin to see creative play as something more than just “fun” for your children and instead recognize its true capacity to instruct, mold, and heal. Children need time, space, and safety to play just as much as adults need to talk through problems with their friends, brainstorm ideas with their co-workers, and process their feelings through art or exercise or other coping strategies. As parents we can invite our children to engage in very type of generative, constructive play–whether that be by turning off devices, instigating a play session, or reducing the number of scheduled tasks in a day. And perhaps, in doing so, we too might connect deeper with the playful, creative, destructive, curious, uninhibited parts of ourselves.