I often get asked by parents when I am working with their child in play therapy, “what can I do to help at home?”. My answer will always be to play with your child and spend time with them, regardless to whether the child is in therapy or not. Play is so important to a child. It is through play and their relationships with others in this play that helps to teach them about the world and how to survive in it.
There are many different types of play, and it is important to try and find a middle ground where both you and your child are happy to play together. Messy play, role play, play with Lego, playing on computer games, board games are just some examples of play. The type of play isn’t important when trying to strengthen your bond and relationship with your child, but how you play and interact with each other is. You both need to be relaxed and enjoying what you are playing.
I have come up with 5 basic points that can be used in any type of play, that will help enhance your experience of playing with your child.
Make up your own rules – let the child take the lead
As an adult you are used to calling all the shots. You need to try and allow play to have its own rules and that means sometimes letting the child take charge. A board game may come with a set of rules and depending on the age and stage of the child you may want to learn how to play the game properly. However, you could also use the board to come up with your own rules and make up your own game. In role play, you may have been given the role of the baddie who gets put in jail for the naughty things you have done, even though you haven't actually done anything bad. The Lego could be used to build something different than the picture on the box. It is important to keep safety boundaries in place so no one gets hurt, but try to allow the child ownership at times of the play as well as joint ownership with yourself. You are in the play together, and so it is a two-way process.
The play doesn’t have to be ‘structured’ or thought through beforehand. Live in the moment rather than plan ahead
Have an art afternoon with your children and see what they can create. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It is the process they are going through making it with you what counts, not the end product. You don’t have to spend time trailing through Pinterest finding something to make, children are full of ideas, they just need to be given the chance to use their imagination rather than always having to follow a sequence of instructions in being able to create a certain thing. The same can be said with role play areas. You don’t need to have a castle in the house to play princesses. A blanket hung over a couple of chairs can be a castle. Anything is possible! See where the play leads you!
Give your child plenty of eye contact
It’s important to connect with your child whilst you are playing with them. They need to know that you are here and present with them, enjoying the time you are spending with them. Nothing shows that better than looking at them and gaining eye contact with them. This also means getting down on their level rather than expecting them to get up to yours.
Remember that your body language and facial expressions are reflecting your thoughts and feelings.
Following on from the eye contact, the facial expressions and body language you use is also telling your child a lot about how you are feeling during the play. Showing them you are concentrating, happy, sad etc are very important in helping the child understand and learn about the world. They learn more through body language than they will through verbal communication. This combination of facial expression, body language and eye contact will really help to foster a safe and secure relationship with your child. Show them that being playful as an adult is possible and that you want to be part of something they do every day.
Give your child plenty of warnings when the play session needs to end
Moving in and out of play needs to be managed well to ensure the end experience stays positive. You need to make it clear when the play needs to come to an end well before that end comes. Even before you start make it clear why you will need to stop playing. For example, "let’s spend the afternoon together but I need to stop at 4pm to get tea ready". Give lots of timer warnings, such as, "we’ve got 10 minutes left before we need to clear up". If you feel you are able to carry on this play later in the day or tomorrow, for example you are building something with Lego or are in the middle of a board game or art creation, let them know where you will put it during the time you will not be playing so they know it will be safe.
Please do get in touch if you would like further advice or help with playing with your child as unfortunately many adults find playing with their child a challenge. You are not alone if this is you and I am sure I can help you to find a way to play happily with your child.