Parents and caregivers often break the first and most important rule of play: the child is always the director! In the realm of play, parents are simply actors hired to play a scene. Keep the following tips in mind, and you just might get invited back.
A Circle is Never a Circle
As an art therapist, I love watching a child draw or create something and waiting for them to tell me what they are creating. Parents and caregivers sometimes have a hard time waiting for that moment.
“Oh, is that a cat?”
“NO! That’s not a cat, that’s the baby!”
By voicing your ideas first, you’re unwittingly influencing your child’s creation, and you may disappoint your child if you guess incorrectly. Don’t assume you know what your child is making. The best part of their creation is listening to their imaginations explain their masterpieces. Listen more while you play, and watch what happens.
Directors Have Rights
We never like to encourage negative or aggressive play, but if we go back to the idea that a child playing is a child communicating, then communication should (by necessity) include both positive and negative elements. When we communicate, it’s generally when we have an idea, thought, or emotion that we need to express. This communication process is equally important to a child.
While your first instinct might be to say, “Stop!” or, “That’s not nice, we don’t play that way,” when your child is aggressive, we should try to curb that behavior. If your child is expressing aggressive thoughts or actions in their play (i.e., saying things like, “I’m going to shoot the bad guy”; “The boy got smacked because he was bad”; or even using foul language) let them play it out but make a mental note to remember the incident. Try not to disrupt the actual play. Instead, when the play is complete, sit down with your child and talk to them about it.
“You know when you were shooting the bad guy? It made mommy wonder why that was happening because she does not like guns. Where did you learn about shooting bad guys? What does that mean to you?”
Children often repeat things they hear at school or at home, or from TV or video games. If an aggressive feeling surfaces but is not a repeated action, then perhaps the child is just trying to express anger or frustration. Allow your child to play out his or her feelings, but make sure you talk about what happened later. By giving your child an avenue to vent while explaining what’s considered right and wrong outside of play, you’re simultaneously validating your child’s experiences while reserving your right to parent.
Who’s the Boss?
Let your children be in charge of their own play, but use caution—you still need to start and end play with a review of the rules.
“You get to be in charge while we’re playing, but I’m in charge whenever I call a timeout.”
I like using timeout (or “Freeze!” for small children) because it is a concept kids easily latch on to. Explain what the timeout or freeze means and use it sparingly. For example, if your child uses a bad word excessively, breaks character, or puts hands on you or anyone else, it’s probably time for a timeout. At the end of playtime, I like to quiz kids on who’s in charge no, and who needs to follow rules.
“Well that was some great playing! Now that we’re finished, who is in charge? Who needs to follow rules? What happens if you don’t follow the rules?”
Review concepts like these and have the child explain it back to you to make sure that he or she fully understands.
Are you guilty of choosing what type of play your child participates in? Admit it—it happens. If you worry about your child taking out an excessive amount of toys and failing to clean up properly, or you just want to limit their use of certain toys, try offering them choices. For example, if you have thirty minutes before dinner and need to keep the children occupied so that you can finish cooking, offer play choices that are easy to clean up: drawing, playing with the dollhouse, or using playdough. If you’re concerned about noise, try suggesting that your child work on a puzzle, read some books, or color.
By giving your child choices, you’re helping your child to learn how to make decisions, and you’re promoting independent play with positive limits. Even better, you’re giving them options without plunking them in front of the TV, a fallback that we’re all guilty of sometimes. In addition, you’re not forcing them to do something, which helps avoid arguments or meltdowns. The best choice, of course, is to allow your child to pick whatever he or she would like to do in that moment—something that’s not always feasible. Be realistic and provide alternatives.
Don’t Play If You Aren’t Going to Have Fun
Listen—your child knows what’s up. Children have a veritable sixth sense when it comes to who is cool, down to earth, and willing to play with them openly and honestly. If you’re having a bad day, you’re in a rotten mood, or you’re just not feeling the idea of rolling around on the carpet and making weird animal noises, don’t. You’re better of gently letting your child down (with a promise of play later) rather than faking your way through it. If you’re inattentive or disgruntled during play, your child may not want to play with you in the future. If you do have to disappoint with the not-right-now speech, try and remember to go back sometime later and offer some real, enthusiastic play time. That play will be well worth the wait for both you and your child.