The summer break is almost over and most kids are very excited about going back to school and seeing their friends again. Yet, for many children, it's the time of high anxiety. Many may express this feeling of anxiety in words and discuss it with parents. However, small children tend to hide and internalize their anxiety and fears. What can you do as a parent? Watch children play. Watch and you will learn. Children often don’t have the words to express what they experience and how they feel, but they will reveal it to you through their play.
After completing training in play therapy 3 years ago, I’ve watched many children play in our clinical practice, and as I’ve done so, I’ve discovered a lot about their thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. You can too, if you learn to pay close attention.
Take Mary. She’s two years old and recently lost her home in a fire that blazed through her neighborhood. She never saw the local news report or heard the radio broadcasts discussing the damage, but she heard the conversations among strangers everywhere she went and wasn’t allowed to play outside because the air was smoky.
Her mother told her she wouldn’t be going back to their house but didn’t need to worry because they had a new, safe place to live. She knew something was wrong. She became clingy and couldn’t sleep well at night. She even had a few nightmares. She just wasn’t herself. When she played, she repeatedly built things with blocks and knocked them down.
Then there’s Sarah. She’s four years old and just became a big sister for the first time. She seems to be doing just fine so far. She treats her baby brother well, likes going to preschool, and continues to be a talkative, chatty little girl. Every now and then she will quietly play with the dollhouse in her room.
She’ll introduce herself to the baby doll, pretend to feed him a bottle, and then put him to bed. It seems to be her way of making sense of the new addition to her family, and she always feels calm and good inside when she’s finished playing it out.
And let’s not forget Brian. He’s six, and his parents recently got separated. He now travels between their homes on a regular basis, and he’s having a hard time getting back into the swing of things as the dust settles in his family. He can’t concentrate at school, and his dad noticed he’s acting like a toddler all over again.
Brian even started to act aggressive toward his little sister, which is very out of character for him. When he plays, he always wants to be the boss, win, and tell others what to do. It’s as though he is trying to achieve a sense of control.
Parents have the unique opportunity to bear witness to the power of play in their children’s lives because most children play out what they see, hear, and feel.
Parents can connect with and support their children by being sensitive to what they see them express through their play, without providing explanations or corrections.
For parents interested in connecting with their children more effectively through play, there are a few guidelines to follow:
- When your children play, let your child be in charge. If you want to help your child express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences through play, allow your child to be in charge during free play with you. This means not offering suggestions for what to play with or how to play. Instead, let your child be the boss and decide what to do during your time together.
- Offer your child toys that facilitate expression. Some toys help children play and express themselves better than others. When trying to reach your child through play and help them communicate, its best to keep it keep the toys simple.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings. If you see your child express different feelings during your playtime together, be sure to verbally acknowledge them! This may be as simple as “Jennifer, you seem really happy right now” or “John, you look a little frustrated”. When you verbally recognize how your child feels, you help your child feel understood and a cared for.
This generally means not offering battery-operated or electronic toys. Instead, let children play with basic toys such as building blocks, art supplies, a medical kit, pretend food, and a dollhouse with a doll family and furniture.
Research is showing that parents can be just as effective as child therapists when they learn how to play with their children using specific skills and toys. This means parents can not only learn how to understand their children better through play, but can also help them learn how to identify and express their feelings, develop self-control, improve their behavior, feel better about themselves, and have better relationships.