THE HIDDEN POWER OF PLAY: UNDERSTANDING A CHILD’S INNER LIFE AND ENCOURAGING GROWTH
“Your job is not to change your child’s feelings; it’s to let her know that you see them, you’re comfortable with them, and together you can communicate about them” (Greenspan and Wieder, 1998, p.211).
Learning to play with and attune to a child can be difficult. As adults, many of us have forgotten how to play, and we might feel awkward when faced with a child who is bouncing around the room waving a puppet, or pushing a train around and around a train track. It’s easy to rely on questions like “oh, what color is that bear’s fur?” or “how many trains do you have there?” I’ve been there, and have been the recipient of many stares that seem to say, “hey lady, you have no idea what I’m doing. Leave me alone.”
If you are a parent, therapist, caregiver, or any other professional or para professional who works with kids, then I guarantee that understanding a bit more about the emotional themes that underlie a child’s play can help your child grow, and can grow your relationship with that child.
In this post I will focus on how to address feelings expressed in a child’s play and feelings expressed directly. I will first give an overview of Greenspan and Wieder’s (1998) 9 emotional themes to get us started in identifying emotional expressions in a child’s world.
Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder’s (1998) book The Child with Special Needs lists 9 emotional themes found in every (even typical) child’s play. Holding these 9 themes in mind and using them as a key to decode a child’s behaviors has been incredibly helpful to me as a mother and as a therapist.
Nurturance and Dependency: This is a common theme because children are dependent on their caregivers. You’ll see these feelings surface in their play when a doll needs a hug, and animal asks for food, or a baby needs its mommy.
Pleasure and Excitement: It’s easy to tell when a child is excited—she’ll laugh, jump, squeal, flap her arms. Join with her, or add a comment like "it's so exciting!" or "you want to do it again!"
Curiosity: Children play out their inherent curiosity through games that involve looking for something, searching for clues, exploration, and hiding.
Power and Assertiveness: Because children can feel powerless in this big world, this is a common theme in play. Big, strong bears squash little bears, or send them to be early without dessert. Dolls are put on time out. Big powerful trucks or trains, power rangers, and dinosaurs are just a few of the favorites for this theme. It’s okay for a child to pretend to be the big bossy character, and also for you to try out being the small, powerless one. It’s a perfect time for you to enter into the play and let your child boss you around, race you, or put your character on time out.
Anger and Aggression: This one is easy to spot, and often difficult to engage with. War games, toy cars crashing, animals fighting. It’s important to remember that it is okay for your child to express anger, but not okay to hurt you or others in the process. This is a time for you to model healthy response to anger, and to show your child that you are comfortable and understanding with this volatile emotion.
Limit-setting: This type of play is about “containing feelings” (p. 205). All those strong feelings of excitement, rage, fear, desire can be scary, and children put limits on them to help contain them. Examples include putting a doll on time out, sending a favorite toy or lovey to bed early, or not allowing “bad guys” to play. When this kind of play surfaces, the child is most likely trying to contain her own feelings and also to process the limits caregivers set on her.
Fears and Anxieties: Greenspan and Wieder highlight a few specific fears that are especially prominent in a little one’s inner life: fear of separation (a parent might leave and never return), fear of injury, and fear of catastrophe (such as tornadoes or earthquakes). These feelings recur in play quite frequently. Block towers get smashed, mommy dolls leave their babies, toy animals or dolls get hurt.
Love, empathy, and concern for others: This is what I like to call “nurturing play” and it flourishes as the child begins to feel more at ease relating to others. In play, you’ll see his characters help each other, fall in love, feed each other. Maybe he’ll want to feed you, or play house, or be the parent and have you be the baby.
Control: This theme comes up frequently as well, since children control so few things in life. The less in-control she feels in her own world, the more control she will exert in her play. Maybe she will insist that a lego house be built “just so,” or perhaps a daddy animal will order a baby animal around. Once again, play is a safe place to act out these scenes, so encourage them and even join in and allow your character to be ordered around, too!
Play is the young child’s primary mode of expression. It is the space where most children begin to express deep emotional themes—yearnings, fears, angers, and joys. As adults who are complex in our language and who are driven to help children learn, it is important to attune to these themes, to engage with them, in order to help children understand what these intense emotions mean and that it’s okay to feel and express them.
I want to reassure you that joining in as your child builds a tower and then has a big dinosaur come smash it, will not reinforce violent behaviors in his everyday life. Establish parameters, telling the child “it’s okay to do this here with your toys, but we don’t hit people and we don’t do things that hurt them.” If he seems preoccupied with themes of aggression and control, introduce a new character in the play who needs help from the bad guys (to encourage nurturing play) or who is excited about the loud noises and strength of the monster (to help resonate with what the child might actually be enjoying about the powerful character). And if repetitive or intense emotional play seems overwhelming, don’t hesitate to contact a therapist or other professional to work with you on understanding the specific needs this child may have.
As you do this, you are helping the child move emotions from a primarily bodily response, to expression as an idea through play. You’re helping her build awareness of her emotions, feel comfortable with them, and you’re giving her the tools to express them and deal with them in an appropriate way.