As a play therapist, I get to witness firsthand the incredible benefits of play. Not only is play a form of connection between the child and caregiver, it is also an avenue to understanding personal boundaries and limitations within the surrounding environment. Play teaches kids social cues and emotional awareness, as well as more balanced ways to outlet both high and low energy. Play is how children communicate their emotions and integrate self-soothing skills to cope with big feelings.
Think of how you process your emotions as an adult. Whether it’s attending your own therapy session, or sharing with a friend during a run, you are most likely better able to understand an event or emotion through story. Perhaps after sharing, you can identify your true feeling behind a heated argument, or why your stomach was hurting before that presentation. Children however, especially those that are younger or have lower verbal abilities, need to process in a different way. Children tell us their story, (or internal emotional experience), through play. It’s up to us to connect and understand.
So, how do we learn the language of play? What are some things we can track within ourselves to help us connect with a child? Below are a few options.
Name your true feelings.
Sometimes it’s hard to stay present in play with your child. Of course, there’s a million things to do! When you catch yourself drifting off, you can say that out loud. When you name it, your child then knows how you’re feeling, and doesn’t have to guess what could be wrong, or if they’re to blame. Phew, threat eliminated. You can say something like: “Oh, I just realized I stopped playing with you and was thinking about what to cook for dinner. I’m going to take a deep breath. Now I’m ready!” The same is true for naming emotions invoked in the play. If something in the play comes up that makes you feel sad or scared, you can say “This is sad/scary!” instead of “Oh how fun.” This teaches emotional awareness and allows you to stay true to how you are feeling.
Allow your child to direct the play, if possible.
Set a time limit on this, as it can become overwhelming! Tips for child-directed play include doing only what you are told, believing that everything in the play is real (yes that means snakes are actually crawling on you-- scary!), and verbalize your experience to reflect back what you feel. This allows you to stay present, name your feelings, and is a cue to your child that you are engaged with them. The more you reflect, the more the child will feel seen and heard.
Setting your own boundaries can benefit both you and the child.
Although this play would be child-directed, if something is uncomfortable to you, you get to set your own boundary. This part is up to you. If you are not ok with aggression or physical play, bring in alternatives such as foam noodles and pillows. You can add language such as: ”I know you wanted to hit my body. I’m going to use this pillow so that my body can stay safe.” If your boundary is not being honored, and redirecting is not working, the only consequence here would be ending play. Ending play does not mean withholding connection, it simply means that this form of play is not going to be an option for the time being.
Look for cues in the play that demonstrates engagement.
There are some cues we can look for to track whether a child is engaging in play. These might include eye contact, body proximity, physical touch, verbal and physical acknowledgement that you’re in the room, and being incorporated in the play are all signs that the child is connecting with you.
Play is a great tool to use for building emotional intelligence. When kids feel safe, seen, and connected, their brains are responding in their executive state where learning is optimized. Here are a few ways play helps to teach this new understanding of emotions:
Play as a way to build emotional awareness:
Through play, especially child-directed play as I described above, we are naming certain emotions. Along with emotions, we teach their bodily cues (think scared = stomachache).
Let’s say that the child sets up the play as follows: The dinosaurs are chasing you and you must keep running faster and faster. But OH NO! The child tells you that your legs suddenly lost the ability to move. Now, you’re stuck on the floor and the dinosaurs are crawling up your legs. Phew, how do you feel? It might sound something like: “I feel scared! My heart is pounding, my legs are shaking, and there’s a giant pit in my stomach. I don’t know how to make them go away! I feel trapped and overwhelmed. Okay, I need to take a deep breath. I also need to squeeze my arms and rock back and forth. This helps me feel better.”
You just responded to what your child was setting you up to feel! You got to name your feelings and experience, stay engaged and connected, and demonstrate self-regulation!
Play as a way to build emotional tolerance:
Children naturally communicate through play to process and understand their emotions. Doing so can also help them learn how to tolerate big feelings. Think of this as a threshold. We all have the capacity to handle big feelings, and that capacity varies with each person. In the play example given above, we are processing and working to build our tolerance to fear. In the set up, we were attempting to feel the discomfort of being scared. Any amount of time that we give towards feeling an emotion, allows us to expand on how we handle the emotion. This in turn widens our threshold. Following the example of processing fear, in play the child is acting out fear to understand what to do with it. At home, this might look like being afraid to sleep in their room or go to a different space in the house alone. They might start clinging to your leg during school drop off or being aggressive with other kids. These behaviors are an attempt to find a more balanced internal state; to get rid of excess dysregulated energy. Play helps to increase their ability to handle big feelings. As a direct result, we see a decrease in big frustrating behaviors. These behaviors are no longer needed because the threat is minimized.
Play as a way to build emotional regulation:
Emotional regulation is important because it teaches kids more appropriate ways to calm or balance their emotions, rather than throwing a tantrum or acting on impulse.
Play typically allows for an outlet for excess and stuck energy, so it is already incredibly regulating. Bilateral play, or play that coordinates both sides of the brain at the same time, is a gross motor skill that is also a grounding technique. It engages the full brain, which allows for more executive functioning, and can help kids get out of their lower brain survival state(think fight, flight, and freeze), and into a state where they can learn, regulate, and thrive.
In the example of child-directed play that shown above, the adult is demonstrating their own way that they self-soothe. This allows for the child’s mirror neurons (the neuron that mirrors other actions) to take in the information and then apply it to themselves. Taking a deep breath, rocking back and forth, going for a walk, asking for pressure or a hug, taking a shower, pushing or pulling something, left hand tapping right arm and vice versa, jumping up and down, pressing on playdoh, scooping sand, etc. are all examples of self-regulation.
Play is a means for communication, and when we can tune in closely, we can help children to strengthen the relationship they have to themselves, their emotions, peers and caregivers. It helps build a context for understanding emotions and learning ways to take care of themselves when big feelings arise. For children, play is serious work!