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The Green Parent

By The Green Parent

25th November 2021

Dawn Sharkey shows how to use play to strengthen relationships and deal with issues that arise in life

The Green Parent

By The Green Parent

25th November 2021

The Green Parent

By The Green Parent

25th November 2021

The word play is synonymous with, fun, light-heartedness; with being not serious. And it should be all those things. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful too.

For children play is a way of understanding how the world works. When you play with your children you can explore your relationship together. It can be an opportunity for little ones to voice their concerns while in a place of safety. And a chance for us to reassure them.

Children need our attention. We keep them safe and help them negotiate the strange world around them. They need to feel that they are important to us, that we understand them and that we are on their side. With this solid base they can explore with confidence.

Changes in situations can upset this balance. Play is a great way to restore it. My son was 19 months when my daughter was born. We worked hard at preparing him for the inevitable upheaval. We played games where I nursed his toys to help explore the future of tandem nursing. I put aside certain things for him to play with while I breastfed the new baby, and researched feeding in a sling so the new arrival wouldn’t stop his fun. Like all parents of second children, the last thing we wanted was for him to feel pushed out by his sibling.

His sister arrived and on the surface he seemed fine. But there were other signs that he was shaken. He would lash out at other children for example. We started playing a game, I can’t remember how it came about, though like most games it was probably the result of an off the cuff remark or joke. It was only after we had played it a few times that I realised its significance.

Learning about feelings
The game was that I would grab my boy in a big bear hug, and he would try and escape. I would try, clumsily, to keep hold of him, being very vocal about how much I loved him, and that I would never let him go. If he did slip through my fingers I would play at pantomime crying, heavy sobs and distraught slumping. When I managed to get hold of him again I would immediately cheer up and repeatedly, tell him how much I loved him.

This was all done in a hammed up, over blown manner, and made him giggle and fall about laughing. It was just a game, it was fun and lighthearted. But it was also a metaphor. It was deeply meaningful. It was a way for my boy to play out and understand that he could never be replaced. That I loved him and would hold on to him for ever. That his sister could not displace him. The theme of the game was symbolic of this and the words we used said it plain.

Around the same time as this was going on a friend’s little boy started nursery. She told me that he had taken to playing a game where he would hide and shout out “You haven’t got a James”. Her role was to be sad and look all over for him, finally finding him and being overjoyed. Again it was clear that this game was performing a healing role for the child. In the game he was able to see something that explained the change in his life. He needed to know that even when he was at nursery his mum was still thinking about him, loving him, and looking forward to being reunited with him.

Connection games
A few months later I read the Book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen and realised that these games were of the type he calls connection games. Our clever kids had found ways to reinforce the connection they need, right when they needed it. These games arose spontaneously and eventually fell out of use once they had served their purpose. But inspired by them and Cohen’s book I invented another game to help my children through a tricky developmental phase.

I’m sure mine aren’t the only children who have at one time felt that everything in sight is “mine!” Little ones are driven to explore and obtaining or keeping hold of an object of interest can become tense and emotional. Around that point both my children enjoyed playing a game where I would grab an object and cry out “Mine!” The closer they came the more I would repeat my cry. If they tried to take the thing from me I would sob in pantomime distress. For some reason they found this hilarious. I can’t claim to know what they were thinking, why it tickled them so, but they responded to it so strongly that I can’t help but think it was in some way helping them work through their strong emotions.

Reflect behaviour
Using play to reflect a behaviour back at a child can allow them to see it from a different angle. It can deflate tension. But it must be done with care and sympathy. Do not let any tone, or even feeling, of mockery seep in. That will not help a child at all. That is not fun.

And of course the thing about games is that they are fun! So even if there is no other benefit, even if our speculation about the psychology at play is misplaced, it doesn’t matter, because everyone is having a good time. And even that would be enough to justify it.

Real life play
It’s a well known phenomenon that children act out real life events in their play. Children who have witnessed horrific acts replay them with their dolls. It might seem counter intuitive to us, wouldn’t children want to forget distressing scenes? But play is highly important in allowing children to come to terms with events that confuse and frighten them. By acting out these events over and over they are able to control and then modify the outcome. It can become something they can understand and own.

Thankfully most children do not see things that might traumatise them, but even the ordinary and day to day can be confusing and distressing from time to time. Using stories can help children come to terms with events they are struggling with. For many children this works best when the subject of the story is not exactly them, but someone they can strongly relate to. My son for example likes me to tell him stories about a family of dinosaurs which is composed in exactly the same way as our family, even having our names, but are not exactly us, because of course, they are not human. I think this veil of distance allows the story to feel safe till the child can assimilate it completely.

The stories my son enjoyed about our dinosaur family were mostly simple descriptions of our daily life, though he occasionally encouraged me to go off in to the realms of fantasy. Just like the games the key here is to keep it fun. If everyone is enjoying it that is good enough. If it is also providing some reassurance or avenue of exploration to your child that is a bonus!

“Using play to reflect a behaviour back at a child can allow them to see it from a different angle”

Getting physical
Physical play is important for all children, but some crave it in quantity. In my own children I have seen my son drawn to different types of “battling” be it with light sabres, bows and arrows or wrestling with special moves like pokemon. It can be hard for us parents to look beyond the “violence” that we are told to worry about. But these types of play allow children to explore some big concepts.

For a tiny person to take on a big one in combat the physical power of one over the other must be set aside. This allows a child to feel loved, and to understand what it is to be treated with gentleness, to see and appreciate restraint. It also gives them, a vulnerable child, the chance to try out power. When they are the one of superior strength or skill (because we are restraining ourselves) they get the opportunity to be magnanimous. Don’t expect them to do this all the time or straight away, but understand that in order for a child to learn how to be fair, gentle or restrained, they must have opportunities to explore fairness, gentleness and restraint. Understand that exploring doesn’t mean always getting it “right”; it can involve trying to get it “wrong” in order to find out where that boundary lies, and in how many shades of grey. Allow yourself to feel honoured that your child can explore in this way with you. Allow that feeling to fuel your patience. Yes, it can be hard when you have been cracked on the knuckles with a plastic sword for the umpteenth time (I speak from experience). But look for the good moments, when your child consciously stops themself from causing harm. See their self control grow. See the gentleness and consideration blossom in them.

Conscious of others
I have now begun to see this bear fruit as my children, aged two and three, play fight together. The oldest is increasingly brilliant at using his judgement when deciding how gentle he needs to be with his little sister. In fact, many times he is better than I am. I often bite my tongue, wanting to shout out “Please be careful!” but I don’t and the silence created by my restraint is filled with laughter, as she relishes her brother’s rumbunctiousness. Planned near misses and taking contact to the edge of what is ok are all part of the fun for the two of them, as they learn about what is fun, and when it stops being a game.

At times my daughter has made pretend cries of pain, and her brother has pulled away. They do this repeatedly as though practicing and building trust. It’s wonderful to see this relationship building play being used between my children.

Play as investment
While we know play is important it can be hard to make time for fun in a busy day where every moment could be used twice over. In particular if parents are busy, working or dealing with other siblings, it can be hard to see games as important enough to warrant time. But connection play can be a short cut to reassure kids, which is especially important when time is limited or life is fast paced.

My experience though, is that play is an investment. When kids need our attention they will do almost anything to get it, even if the attention it gets them is not positive. Many times I have made the mistake of trying to get my jobs done first, in the hope the children will entertain themselves till I am ready to play. But I was given some great advice that turned this on its head.

Now when I need to do something I play with the children first. Once their cup is full they can often entertain themselves for a short while while I complete a task.

In order to work on this article I first of all took my children for a bath where they had lots of fun sensory play. Then we played on our bed, pillow fights and me catching them like fish in a “net” of a sheet. This play helped us all feel connected. It involved lots of eye contact, physical contact and the children directing the game to a degree, such as requesting things again or suggesting modifications. Agreeing to these helps children feel heard and like their thoughts and ideas matter.

Following this we sat down for a snack. The youngest promptly fell asleep and the eldest took himself off, metaphorical cup brimming, to play with his toys.

I was gifted forty minutes of uninterrupted typing before he returned to me, climbed in a big cardboard box that happened to be by my side and shouted “Where’s your baby?”. He initiated this game as he knows it is a fun tool to get my attention and reconnect. He didn’t need to act up because I set him up to succeed. I made sure his needs were met and gave him tools to ask for connection when he needed it.

Now don’t misunderstand, I am human and don’t always do this well. But when it works like this I know what a wonderful and powerful parenting tool good old fashioned play can be.

More inspiration

READ Playful Parenting Laurence Cohen, Using Storytelling as a Theraputic Tool Margot Sutherland or The Art of Roughhousing Anthony DeBenedet and Lawrence Cohen