Creating Child’s Play

All children need to play and use their play to make sense of their experiences and to make sense of what is happening around them. Through play, they are able to channel overwhelming feelings and ‘play out’ situations that they feel powerless to resolve.

By offering the child a space and providing a few simple props they are able to create a character for themselves and be in their own fantasy world.  This  experience gives the child an opportunity to explore what they need to explore in their own way and at their own pace.

The adult’s role is to observe, wait and listen ; to only get involved and take on a role if invited to do so. It is of paramount importance that in the play situation the adult follows the lead of the child and does not try to take the story  or the child’s play where they feel it should go,  or try and hurry it to a conclusion.

Trust the process because play, if allowed to unfold, will travel at the pace appropriate for the child.  If it is not completed in the time allotted, the child is usually happy to carry it over to the next opportunity. This is much better than forcing a conclusion before the story has had time to reach its creative potential.

One eleven year old boy called Roger was referred to me because of his stammer which was getting worse because he was having difficulty integrating into a new step family. I offered him some choices and rather than focusing on techniques to help him overcome his speech difficulties, he chose to play and asked if he could  ‘play shops’ . He played shops in each of our sessions for three months.

Each week he would set up his grocer’s shop and display items for sale I was given the role of  customer and allowed to purchase specific items of his choosing. Over the three month period, the shop developed into a thriving business and Roger created a café inside the shop, where he was also waiter and chef. I was invited to order meals from the illustrated menu provided and waited for an allotted time my meal was prepared and served.

Roger had complete control over the business he had created and was totally engrossed in his play, paying attention to every detail. During this time his speech and behaviour problems gradually resolved as he became more settled and integrated at home.  School reported that his organisational skills had improved dramatically as he grew in confidence.

At the end of a three month period Roger said that he did not want to play the game any more and told me that ‘he was alright now’. His mother and I agreed with him and our sessions ended. I certainly would not have suggested that he ‘play shops’ because I would have assumed that he was too old for such a game.

However, because Roger’s play continued to unfold as his shop expanded it felt important that he was allowed to play this game until it had reached its own conclusion and he was ready to stop and not because I felt it had gone on long enough.

Have no expectations and make no assumptions.

Children are able to create situations which to the observer have no bearing on their reality but which in fact include the same elements and allow the child to resolve situations, relationships and fears in an imaginary situation which will then impact on their life in ways which we would not think possible.

Children are able to resolve painful memories and grief through play situations. Fairy stories provide a perfect vehicle for children who have suffered trauma and abuse for in the stories the main characters overcome incredible hardship by exhibiting courage and compassion in the face of cruelty and neglect.

Simplicity is the key.

An abundance of different material in the clear colours of the rainbow can become a headdress of an African Chief; a star spangled dress for the ball; a magic carpet to an exotic land; a rainbow path to lead you out of a dark wood; a warm coverlet in the bitter wind, a sumptuous Bedouin tent in the desert; a deep crystal lake preventing access or the elements of earth, air, fire and water… … the possibilities are endless.

The child could bring a favourite piece of music or song to the play session. Play this for them quietly in the background to provide a sense of comfort and familiarity. The child’s chosen music will give an indication of the emotions they are dealing with.

All children love to play and are able to play and show their enjoyment in their own way however disabled and whatever the medical diagnosis says.

Prepare to be amazed and humbled by what you see and hear. Forget yourself, this is not about you and what you can do or make happen.  Have clear boundaries for what is acceptable, provide the space and the materials and wait, watch and listen for the magic to begin.

‘Sensory Rainbow’ and ‘Happy Talk’  are free download manuals based on my training as a holistic therapist and my earlier extensive experience as a speech and language specialist for adults and children with special needs within the National Health Trust in the UK . Plenty of ideas are offered for those wishing to develop their play skills.