The Importance of Play

Play is perhaps one of the most important developmental tools that children have. Through play, children work out psychological conflicts, experiment with new skills and coping mechanisms, explore and gain new understanding of objects, and gain confidence in their own abilities, among many other things. Play is so important that to deprive a child of it can result is serious developmental delays and psychological problems.

There are many kinds of play, each has a place in development. Perhaps one of the most important forms of play is fantasy play. In fantasy, a child may become anything, do anything, and try out almost any situation without fear or danger. Fantasy play for a child is like an improvisational theatre where they can try out any situation and work out problem or confusion on a matter. Within the safety of the play situation, important people can die, or leave, magical things can happen, or the child can be an invincible super hero, who can’t be hurt by any evil power. Because children don’t yet have the capacity to deal with all the trials and tribulations that life has to throw at them, play allows them the opportunity to be and do whatever is necessary to deal with the big and often frightening world in a safe and fun manner.

Play Therapy for Parents

One of the time honored techniques for counseling children is through “play therapy”. This technique provides a troubled or “stuck” child the space to work out problems with the help of an experienced person who can “decode” the play and sometimes put words to it. In this way a child can begin to organize their feelings in a more “developmentally advanced” way. In other words, the conflicts or problems that have a child stuck can be brought out into the open and discussed verbally. This verbal understanding can be incorporated into their self-understanding and can become an important part of their personality. Without this understanding, problems that keep a child “stuck” can become closed off and avoided as they grow. They are less likely to be able to express their feelings, less able to fully be the person that they are because they have to keep some parts of themselves secret and hidden. This is particularly the case if a child has suffered some kind of trauma or is very anxious or depressed. Play therapy is often used with children between the ages of 5 and 10. It can be used with younger children, and older children but it is most effective at these early childhood years.

What is important for parents to know is that they can do a form of play therapy with their child. While is best for an expert to work with a child if they are somehow “stuck”, parents can learn a great deal about their child and themselves and get much closer to their child by “playing” with them. Often parents feel that they should “teach” their children when they play with them. In this technique, the children “teach” the parent. Further, spending a half hour periodically in this type of interaction with a child can go a long way to repairing a parent-child relationship.

I call this “reflective play.” To do this a parent must first suspend their need to be a “teacher” or a “parent.” Allow the child to take the lead saying to the child, “lets play together for a while, you decide what to do.” This allows some space for the child to choose a way of communicating with the parent and to choose the “tools” with which they feel most comfortable. Whatever the choice, the parent could be either an active participant or an observer, whichever the child decides.

As the play themes develop, the parent should simply reflect what is happening in the play. One problem may be that, if the theme is aggressive or perhaps sad, with themes of death or destruction, parents may feel anxious about the play. Remember, this is a time to suspend judgment and simply try to understand and get into the play. One example comes from a mother that I worked with who was concerned that her 6-year-old boy was “running over a doll with a car over and over.” In this case, the boy’s father was a violent person who had a history of incarceration for assault. She worried that her son was on his way to becoming violent like his father. Of course, this was a complicated set of dynamics, but I suggested that she reflect his conflict rather than anxiously question why he would run over the doll in the road. There are many ways this can be handled by a professional who has a good history and is trying to help this child deal with his conflicts. For a parent involved in “reflective play” I suggest something like the follow might be said. “Wow, the doll keeps getting run over by the car!” This is reflecting the action of the play and allows space for the child to develop and deepen the themes, thereby engaging the child where they are in their world. It’s really very simple, suspend judgment and reflect the action or theme. Try it, you may find that your child has a lot to tell you. This simple technique can really open new avenues of relating to your child.