One of the reasons why I love talking about using play with children is because it’s such a BOGO. It moves the energetic state of parent AND child, which changes the situation just by the power of the parent’s energy shift. We’re so closely connected to our children that they’ll often magically match our energy, for better or worse. Play shifts us out of Ugh I have so much to do, I don’t have time for this! mode to a happier state that our children are drawn to like a YouTube video of other kids playing with toys.
Another reason I’m BFF’s with play is because it’s how our kids learn. If there’s any part of the day that your child is having trouble with, you can just ask to play it out with them, which creates a space where they’ll actually listen to your wisdom.
For example, if your child is impulsive near the road and will gleefully bolt, you can say, “Let’s play crossing the street!” Use toys to set up cars on the floor. Then have another toy cross the “street” — “Oh no, pony almost got hit by a car!” Talk about what pony needs to do to be safe near the road and why it should only cross the street with a trusted adult. If pony gets hit, take him to the “hospital”, maybe even talk about how ponies with broken legs can’t play any cool games for an entire summer.
The same benefits of play on impulse control work for several situations; circle time at school, getting dressed, sharing, etc. Lawrence J. Cohen says in his book, Playful Parenting, to: “Take a real situation that is hard for them, label it as play, and let children practice gaining control over their impulses in ways that won’t get them punished or humiliated.” I’m not down for punishing or humiliation, but my kids might encounter this as part of being out in the world, so helping them to get impulse control in check is important.
We also need to use play to help children to fully learn to self-soothe, which is the ability to comfort themselves when they are alone. Normally they learn this from our snuggles, but if you have an older child that rejects your lap or won’t sit still long enough for cuddles, wrestling with them can be a great “active cuddling” option!
For other kids, they will be receptive to just taking a few deep breaths, yoga, or even meditation. Another fantastic way for kids to learn is to comfort a doll or other toy. If they haven’t done it on their own, pick up a toy that is “upset” and ask them if they can help it feel better.
Sometimes a child that ends up getting labeled as having an attention deficit disorder just lacks the ability to self-soothe. Or they may also need help learning self-regulation.
You can incorporate self-regulation play anywhere, anytime. You just need to be able to give them frequent, quick directions to change up what they are doing:
- Dance, do jumping jacks, run, or jump: “Go slower, slower, faster, super fast, as fast as you can… Go to the right, go to the left, go to the right, go to the left… Hop on your right foot, hop on both feet, hop on the left, now the right…”
- Sing: “Sing softer, as soft as you can, now louder, even louder, as loud as you can…”
- Scream: “Scream as loud as you can, now softer, a little softer, now whisper, now don’t make any noise at all..”
- Hand them something they can sort, like blocks, beads, crayons, sugar packets, etc.: “Sort with your right hand, now by color, now with your right hand, now by shape, now by length…”
These activities help them to maintain a level of excitement that is appropriate for whatever situation they are in.
Finally, another fun way to use play is to develop their motor planning and sequencing skills. Kids with difficulties in these areas may have trouble getting organized for school, finishing a project, or keeping track of their homework.
- You can create an obstacle course for them – first making it simple then increasing the difficulty as they master it.
- For older children you can even construct a treasure hunt, where they’ll find a clue that leads to more clues.
- If that sounds like far more work than you’re interested in doing, teach them complicated jump-rope games or hand clapping songs.
“Did you play with them about it?”
With young children, play is often going to be the “language” we need to use. It packs a lot bigger punch than talking or reacting. Play is also often the answer to our questions about what to DO, so, “Did you play with them about it?” is one of the questions I ask clients when they are struggling with a frustrating behavior.