Play, More Than Just Fun

Parents often ask me what is the most effective thing that they can do for their children, the thing that will benefit them the most. As a play therapist, family counsellor and parent, my answer is unequivocally, PLAY! Play is a child’s language and toys are his/her words. “Play stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego” (Landreth, 2002). Through play, children practice skills that they will need throughout their lives. They explore different roles in play thereby learning about those roles. Have you ever listened to your child’s play and heard the exact words that you said to him/her come out of his/her mouth? Your child is integrating what you have taught him/her. Apart from being fun, play provides relaxation and an outlet for reducing tension. Play encourages creativity, abstract thinking and problem solving. Through play, children learn how to master new concepts and play increases a child’s self-confidence. Socially, play is very important as it helps develop cooperation, sharing, turn-taking and conflict resolution. Play aids in physical development as well as in development of attention and language.

Free unstructured play is essential for children and their development. Playing alone or with a friend or sibling provides many opportunities to learn and each of these types of play provide opportunities to develop different skills. As a parent, playing with your child is great way to strengthen the relationship with your child, especially if you let your child take the lead in the play and you follow your child’s lead. They love it if they can tell you what to do and this is a perfectly appropriate place for them to do it: in their own world. Enter and be humbled by what their play can teach you!

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Repairing the Relationship

I went to a 2-day conference this past weekend and saw one of the founding “fathers’ of play therapy, Dr. Garry Landreth. He has been working with children as a play therapist for 50 years! Among many of his rich and interesting stories about the field of play therapy, were the pearls of wisdom that Dr. Landreth gave us. One that I found to be very powerful, especially for us parents is “It’s not what you do that is important but what you do after what you have done.” So, as parents, we goof! For example: instead of patiently answering our child’s question, one that s/he has asked for the 100th time, we grow impatient and respond inappropriately and out of frustration. Our child walks away hurt or gets angry back. We have bruised the relationship with our child. This leaves us feeling bad/guilty/sad/ _______(Fill in the blank.).

We give lots of importance to what we have just done. We berate ourselves because we have not lived up to our standard of being the perfect parent. Therefore, if we follow the words of Dr. Landreth, we will want to shift the focus of what we have just done over to repairing what we have done, thus repairing the relationship with our child. How do we do this? It’s not hard but the hardest part for many is admitting that we made a mistake, that we were less than perfect. It is important to model being less than perfect, model making mistakes and how we recover from these mistakes. Mistakes are an important part of learning. If we weren’t meant to make mistakes, erasers would not have been invented!

The repair is really quite simple the “what you do after what you have done” part of the equation.

1. Allow for a cooling off period. Let yourself cool off and gain composure. Your child may need to have a cooling off period too. This can be from 30 minutes to 2-3 hours. See my post on the cycle of anger.

2. Tell your child what you did not do well. Admit that your performance was less that perfect. It’s okay for your child to see this part of you, to see that people are not, nor need to be, perfect.

3. Say, “I wish I had ________ instead of __________ (What you did). This is a very important part as it also teaches your child what s/he can do as an alternate behaviour. So in the example above, losing patience, you might say, “I really did not handle that well when you asked me that question over and over. I got frustrated and yelled, I’m sorry. I wish I had said instead ‘I’m  frustrated by you asking me the same question over and over, so please don’t ask me again.’ ”

4. There are no buts in this equation. Do not say, “I really did not handle that well when you asked me that question over and over BUT it frustrated me.” But implies that you had good reason to blow up, that you are not responsible for your actions. This is not what you want to model.

Now you have just repaired the relationship and modelled it for your child. Try it next time you “goof” and I can assure you that you will have many opportunities to practice these 4 easy steps of making repairs!!

Share your successes or your challenges.

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Privileges/Responsibility

When you have difficulty thinking of some logical consequences for you child’s misbehaviour, it is often earlier to think in terms of privileges and responsibility. Privileges and responsibility go hand in hand; if your child wants a privilege then s/he has to take the responsibility that goes with that privilege. If s/he won’t take responsibility, then s/he loses the privilege for a period of time.

Because we are teaching our kids to take responsibility, they need many instances to practice. For this reason the amount of time that they lose the privilege for initially should be short and lengthened every time the privilege is abused. The whole process may go something like this. The parents might say, “You are allowed to use the computer for 1 hour every day. It is your responsibility to use your time wisely so that you stay within the 1 hour limit. I will tell you when it is 5 minutes to end time and then I’ll tell you when your time is up. If you choose  not to get off the computer, you will use your computer privilege for the next day.” Then the parents would have the child repeat this rule. If one day the child goes over time, the parent says to the child, “I see that you are choosing to lose your computer time for tomorrow.” and then the parent follows through with this the next day. If the behaviour reoccurs, then the child loses 2 days of computer etc. When the child sees that the parent will follow through in a fair, firm but kind manner, s/he will soon respect the responsibility that goes with the privilege. …And yes the child may tantrum but the parent calmly but firmly says, “I know your upset that you can’t use the computer today. You can try again tomorrow.”

Here are examples of privileges and responsibility:

Privilege Responsibility
Having toys Cleaning up after playing with them
Using the car Putting gas in the tank
Riding a bike Putting bike away after use
Going out with friends Being home on time
Using the computer Staying within the time limit for use
Watching TV Respecting limits
Having a cell phone Keeping within the terms of the plan or paying for it
Going out to a restaurant with the family Showing appropriate behaviour