What’s Really on Your Child’s Mind?
My son will not play by himself. If he does not have somebody to connect with while playing, he would rather zone out by watching television. I'd say that is typical. But, after I caught myself feeling annoyed with his insisting that I play with him, I had to stop and scold myself. What a healthy thing he was doing - asking for connection. After a few short play times, where I just let him take control, he played out a moving scene and made a statement about our NEXT house. Wait a pretty little minute now! That bugged me because this kid has gone through some pretty major life changing moves from adoption, to a flooded house, and a recent major move to a new home and school. Though he loves the new home and school, I can understand that he would be uneasy and wondering how often these major changes were going to happen, after all he is only four. I realized he had some significant things he needed help making sense of; and he was inviting me into his world.
My daughter is another example. While playing on a warm, summer day (who am I kidding - it was HOT), she spilled out about having been picked on during that school year. It really bothered her; but she waited for a time of relaxation, fun, and connection to process it out. I can't help but wonder if I could have done something about it or at least comforted her in the moment if only I had devoted more of these connected play times with her during the busy school year.
These play times remind me of chats with my girlfriends. We laugh and talk about our worlds and even work out a few problems over coffee (or perhaps a Mimosa). We, as adults, seek the connection in face to face discussion with trusted loved ones. We are wired to seek out the connection. We receive validation, deeper understanding, support. and attempt to make sense of our lives. Well kids do too, but through their language of play along with an engaged other. Do I speak my kids’ language all the time? No Way! I forget in the busyness of day to day. Just as much as we schedule time for face to face talks with adult loved ones, shouldn't we be scheduling regular face to face play times with our children?
Examples of The Power of Play as Language
Here is a 7 year-old client's expression of how he felt during his parents' severe arguments. He had chosen three symbols to represent his mother, his father, and himself. Notice the fences, which I believe represent disconnection in his most vital, primary relationships. Can you find his symbol? He is buried underneath the sand. How can a child express such complicated thoughts and feelings? Through play.
Here is a fourteen year old client's expression of her feelings about her much younger but very strong-willed brother. Her little brother's strong-willed behaviors were setting the tone for ongoing family life.
Can you guess which symbol she assigned to herself? What does it say about how she felt about herself during that time in her life? Do you think that could have colored her feelings about herself in other areas, such as school and her developing sense of identity?
A keynote speaker at a play therapy conference said that we, as therapists, are the most important toys in the room. That is because it is the relationship itself that is therapeutic. You too are your child's most important toy during your one on one play. Leave your phone off and in another room. Turn off the TV and other gadgets. Gather several very basic toys that could represent family, school, home, aggressive and passive animals, baby dolls, Legos, blocks, Play-Doe, play food, paper and crayons. These are very basic things they will manipulate (play with) which may open the door to grow your connection and their sense of security and so much more. If you have older children get some craft ideas together like model building, jewelry making, slime making, or doodle art books. Devote play time to each child, individually. It can be as short as just 15 minutes. Be sure to take the back seat, let them be in charge, wipe the to do list in your brain clean, be fully present, and enjoy that time just as you would enjoy fixing cars or having tea with a close friend. Like all good things, do it regularly. You just might get a priceless glimpse into what's really on your kid's mind.