Play is a fascinating aspect of being a child. We all remember with fondness how playing helped us to discover the world, allowed us to be anything we wanted to be and let us have fun. What we might have not been so aware of is how our play showed very clear aspects of our inner world to others. Child therapists have been observing children’s play for decades and have been assessing the emotional needs of children through very simple methods that might help you to understand your little one better.
Although we are not writing this article with the intention of turning you into your child’s therapist, we are certain that, by following some very simple guidelines, you might be able to explore your child’s inner world a bit better. Not everything they do through play shows something about themselves but some things will undoubtedly come up that might help you to be a more supportive parent.
So what can you do to become closer to your child’s inner landscape through play?
- Let them choose what they want to play with: Don’t take the initiative, only stand by their side and observe how they go through their toys until they choose one. This is about them and generally about their subconscious mind selecting a medium in which they can communicate better. What kind of toy are they choosing? Interactive games? Building blocks? Books? They will give you a hint of how they might be feeling (extroverted, withdrawn, open, calm) and how much they want you to be involved in the game.
- Don’t lead the play: “Observe” is your magic word in this area. Always be one step behind your child and don’t interfere with the story. Be part of the game but always let your child lead. This is a bit more tricky than what it seems, be aware of what you say and avoid things like “maybe the characters should do this” or “maybe we could build it this way”. You want to ensure your child is able to express themself through the play. So simply be there, following their steps.
- Observe what type of characters your child has chosen and what roles does he give to them: Has he chosen a very strong and empowering character? Or maybe his character is shy? Has he picked a large or a small family unit to play with? If you are keeping a step back and you are not interfering you might observe some very interesting dynamics between the toys.
- How is your child relating to the characters? And how do the characters relate to each other? Obverse how your child interacts with the characters of the story directly. He might throw one toy around expressing anger, or he might rescue a toy that is being bullied. The characters will of course also interact. They might be frustrated with each other or, on the contrary, they might be very caring and supportive. One of the characters might feel weak and tired while another cares for him.
- Ask the right questions: overall try not to ask many questions but sometimes it’s useful to just inquire about what is going on in the play. Use open questions that start with a format like “I wonder why…” or “I wonder what…” You might see that one of the characters is alone to which you can ask “I wonder why that little boy is alone?” These types of questions will prompt an answer without interfering in the development of the play. As previously mentioned, always allow your child to lead
- Observe how your child interacts with you during the play and follow his guidance: Maybe they just want to play next to you but don’t want you to be an actual part of the game. Maybe they offer you a toy as a sign that they want you to interact. If, for example, you are building something together, notice whether or not they connect what they are making to what you are making, or if they are showing more independence by ensuring their project doesn’t touch yours.
- Allow them to make a mess and notice their feelings while they are doing so: children express a lot of emotions through messy play. Allowing them to do so. They might reveal feelings of unsettledness or frustration through mixing glue, colours and glitter. They might also test your boundaries to see how far they can go with the mess and how you are going to react to this situation. If you have to keep some boundaries, (by telling them for example “you can do what you are doing but keep to the table”) do so in a calm and non-intrusive way.
- Notice how the play ends: Toys become real for children. They might want to leave the main character of the story tucked safely in bed. They might prefer to keep one of the toys separate for the others. Observe what are their feelings when finalising the game and always give them some notice that play time is going to be over soon by saying “we will have to start tidying up in 10 minutes”, for example.
Once again you are a parent, not a therapist. However, if you follow these tips, you might get to learn more things about your child than what you would have imagined. Children don’t have the necessary skills to express everything they feel, but you can really be supportive of their emotions by allowing them to play with no interference and observing the process.