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healing power of play

First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, New Zealand.  

Play provides children with a rich world of engagement, fun, communication, learning and exploring. When a child climbs a tree, they not only stretch and strengthen their muscles, develop their coordination, and explore their edges with height and balance, they also deeply bond with the tree, as they intimately become familiarized with the shapes, textures and smells of the tree. Unlike playground equipment (which also offers much enjoyment to children), each branch of a tree has a different level of strength and flexibility, there’s a dynamic at play between the child and the tree.

“Play is the way children make the world their own, exploring, making sense of all their new experiences and recovering from their upsets.”  ~ Laurence Cohen

Can you remember your favourite trees, rocks and rivers from your own childhood, on your property or at a nearby park? Children who feel deeply bonded with the earth can feel more secure in their world and likely grow up to want to care for nature.

An element that’s less understood is that play also has immense potential for healing and provides children with opportunities for the resolution of stress, insecurities and trauma.

Through their play children:

  • Express and work through feelings they can’t yet make sense of. Think about the child enacting a two or three way conversation with their dolls, action figures or puppets, either on their own or with a friend.
  • Work to resolve fears and stresses. Think about the little child being pushed on the swing shrieking with laughter as they bravely shout “higher, higher”, or the older child constantly pushing their edges with their bike or skateboard tricks.
  • Practice developing skills related to recent or anticipated challenges. For instance, the child adapting to pre-school may enact similar scenarios with their toys or want to be the teacher telling mum or dad to be the little kid who has to do what they’re told.
  • Re-enact that which has been scary or confusing; the child who sees the firefighters and the big trucks at the scene of a fire will likely want to take on the same role in play or build firetrucks with their Lego and re-enact the scene.
  • Release anxieties through laughter; picture the little toddler bravely running in and out of the water at the beach.
  • And so much more!

Although most play happens naturally, parents can learn more about how to interpret and further support their child's developmental growth and healing through play.  Parents can easily learn to use play to create specific opportunities to help children overcome aggression, fears, inhibitions, separation anxieties and other specific stumbling blocks.

Children bring everything to their play!  They have a huge appetite for fun and within this are many of their instinctive developmental urges to learn, to understand, to conquer and to heal.  The more a child is facing and conquering fear in a game, the bigger the laughter, the more hysterically funny the play will be:

  • When they're being chased by the baddie, they're touching on feeling and resolving their fears of being hurt or overpowered. 
  • When they're playing hide and seek, they're touching on, feeling and partly resolving separation anxieties. 
  • When they're building sandcastles, or villages and ships with blocks, they're developing amazing abilities in lateral and creative thinking and problem solving.
  • When they get to knock you over in a game or a pillow fight, they laugh hysterically because it touches on and resolves feelings of smallness, helplessness, powerlessness and frustrations relating to feeling forced, controlled and overpowered.

Children are play experts!  Play is an area where kids are often much more skilled than us adults; they are less inhibited, they have more energy and enthusiasm, they definitely have more stamina!  This is one of the many reasons why play can be an area where children can regain a lot of their dignity, confidence and self-esteem.

When we exaggerate any clumsiness, fears, awkwardness, being uncoordinated (which honestly doesn’t take much faking on my part, which my kids find endlessly amusing!!), or feign forgetting how to count from 1 to 10 or remembering which colour is which, tensions can dissipate relating to the frustrations of always being told what to do and what not to do, frustrations of being smaller, younger, less knowledgeable and less competent in a big people's world.

As much as our children want and need us to be their hero and show strength, they also need to see our humanness and vulnerability, which can greatly reassure them that they too are allowed to be less than perfect.

Separation anxiety.  Playing a game of hide and seek can help the child regain feelings of empowerment around reconnecting with their parent who has disappeared. The game allows a child to connect with the feeling of separation again, but this time they have more power in the situation to either find or be found.  How cute when they hide behind the curtains calling out "I'm here", just to be sure you don’t forget about them.  The reconnecting in hide and seek (or peek-a-boo) usually elicits huge shrieks of laughter and that laughter has a lot of power to heal.

Facing fears.  A mother of a four year old shared the following story with me.  “My son was nervous of putting his head under the water and feeling the pressure of this expectation from the swimming instructor.  One day I decided to play around with it.  I suggested he be the instructor but I really, really was not going to put my head under.  We played and giggled and he cajoled me to try.  Then he gave me a snorkelling mask so I could go under.

As a wee boy with asthma I wonder if the fear of not being able to breathe is a strong one for him.  The next swimming lesson he still didn’t put his head under, but he was much more relaxed and did put his chin and mouth under.  More importantly he was feeling so much more relaxed about something he’s always loved until these lessons – being in the water.

More Play Ideas

  • Invite your child to chase you as you feign fear of being captured by her, while she discovers that she can catch you!
  • A pillow fight allows a child to get a lot of stress out of their system while building the bond through laughter.
  • Get him to push against the palms of your hands as you kneel in front of him. Let your resistance be enough to give him some struggle, but not too much that he can't victoriously knock you over in the end!
  • A favourite in our family has been sock wrestling (learned from Larry Cohen's Playful Parenting book!), where each person attempts to take the other person's socks off.  So much fun!!

Dissipating power struggles.  You could introduce this last idea as a fun way to get their frustrations out, then invite your child to push against the palms of your hands (maybe kneeling in front of her).  So often when my son was all grumpy and out of sorts, I would just hold my palms up and invite him to push against me, within seconds he’d be in hysterics of laughter and there would be a marked improvement in his mood after that.  Ensure your resistance is enough, but not so much that your child can't victoriously knock you over in the end, it helps a child connect with the frustration in their belly and other parts of the body where tensions are held. This kind of game gives a child the chance to "push against you", while having a chance to struggle, growl and laugh.  Laughter in this context can be profoundly healing and bonding.

These kinds of games can help to shift the parent and child out of stuck power struggle dynamics. It's especially important that parents are mindful of the power dynamics in their play with their child.  A child may laugh lots when being tickled or physically held down or locked into the parent's arms, but this can cause the very conflicting feelings of being pretty scary and overwhelming for a child at the same time.  Holding a child captive just enough for them to feel your resistance, but making sure they can escape, on the other hand can be healing and genuinely fun.  Our sensitivity to our child's vulnerability and the age/size/weight/power differences are especially important in play.

When children regain a feeling of power and laughter release through non-aggressive play, it can also help to avoid, or even end, them gaining outlets through being aggressive.

Children who are struggling with stress or unhealed trauma often act aggressively, resist bedtime, or refuse to cooperate.  Helping children heal from stress is therefore an important part of non-punitive discipline.” P.45 Attachment Play, Aletha Solter PhD

A mother of a five year old and a three year old shared the following story:

My kids used to race one another to the car and push and cry if they weren’t first.  This was never a good start to any journey, so I began being dramatically upset that I was last and would feign crying.  They thought it was hilarious and soon would prompt me to “be sad  ‘cause you’re last”.  They joined in laughing at me and after playing this a few times they forgot about who was first.

Sometimes parents will use an approach that looks similar, but with the intention of mocking their children for squabbling.  It’s important to differentiate the two approaches; one is intended to, and will likely have the result of, mocking (i.e. shaming).  The other, as in this mum’s example, is intended to connect with the kids in this area of struggle and upset for them and facilitate some stress releasing laughter, with the understanding that it’s often the stress caused by such challenges which causes kids to fixate.  They each want to feel better by winning the race to the car, yet the game gives them another avenue to feel better, hence dissipating the power struggle.

Adults so often get annoyed at kids when they argue, forgetting that these upsets are very real, very big and challenging for children.  They need our support, or at least for us not to intensify their upset feelings by imposing our criticisms on them.

Laughter heals us and heals our children. Laughter can help children release frustration and anxiety relating to the effects of adult's pressure, high expectations, criticism, rejection or anger. Through their play children can build resilience and confidence for future challenges.  When you sit on the floor playing Lego with your four year old or let your teenager show you some funny YouTube clips, you bring back lightness and connection and meet your child in their world. Laughter and fun with our child can also bring relief to the seriousness and hard work of our adult world and remind us of the simple joys of life again.

To learn more about the developmental and therapeutic values of play, I highly recommend “Playful Parenting” by Larry Cohen and “Attachment Play” by Aletha Solter.  Much of my inspiration on the subject has come from these two psychologists and authors.  Their books are filled with insights into the inner world of the child.  And I'm on a continual learning journey in this area in my own family and with the families who I have the privilege of helping. 

Picture by Marijke Smith Photography

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