Understanding the Power of Play at All Ages
Remember that first toy you played with over and over again? Maybe it was a red plastic record player playing, ‘Little Sir Echo’ or ‘Flies on the Sugar Bowl, Shoo, Shoo, Shoo…’ Or as a teenager you wore out albums that were daringly racy, George Carlin’s, “The 7-Words You Cannot Say on Television…”
How did your parents react to them? Did they allow you to push boundaries and ‘play?’ Or was your play met with cries of “don’t be silly, stop that racket, or turn that thing off!” If you were shut down from play at an early age, did that stifle your ability to be playful later in life?
Play is how a child communicates where they are and what they are feeling. If their parent is not filled with playfulness, it can stifle the child’s ability to use their natural language. It is why play therapy is one of the most important ways at Integrate, we work with children. Yet many parents have difficulty understanding play in their ‘adult minds.’
Play between a parent and their child is critical for development. A lot of the children we work with are pre-verbal and sometimes too much is expected of them and their ability to communicate. Yet, if given the right ‘play’ medium, they express themselves and we help them heal. If your child has experienced little play, perhaps as an adult you struggle to experience playfulness.
We do not determine the type of play. The child shows us how they want to communicate. Whether it is through drawing, clay moulding, acting... all these tools help the child communicate. When we figure out what is surfacing from their past and/or present, we see the affect trauma had on their upbringing and what they are now communicating.
The word silly is too often used in England referring to children’s play. In school and home, children are told to, ‘stop being silly!’ Play is very meaningful for children. Children don’t care about your time, priorities, or space. Play is as important to them as breathing. Something dies inside of them if forced to not play. They lose natural exuberance and expression. Schools are very academically derived. There are strict expectations placed on behaviour and learning at a young age. Yet in Scandinavia, they put more emphasis on play until age seven when they introduce academics.
Children act out experiences through play. A child, for example, may see a tissue box as a truck. If the parent then says, “you need to be more serious and not do that to my tissue box,” the parent may not understand how acting out experiences help their child grow. Parents either promote play or shut it down. Play is how their child makes sense of the world and it’s sad when a parent blocks a child’s natural play.
Children's toys and games have become two-dimensional through screens. Kids though, need tactile physical experiences of three-dimensional play. They take pots and pans out from under the sink and bang on them with wooden spoons to make noise and feel part of the game. It is fun for them to engineer something themselves. In the 2-D screen world there is little room for creativity. The more sophisticated the toy, the less creative the child becomes and thus experiences life around them.
Developmentally, children playing is them revealing where they are. A 14-year-old playing with the tissue box as a car, does not get the same smiles as the 2-year-old. All the while you as the parent, should respond by asking, what is my child trying to tell me through this play? How am I meant to interact or respond here?
The older child was likely unable to play because it never happens unless activated deliberately. When it leaks out later in life, it tells us a lot about communication. A 14-year-old acting like a 2-year-old is re-enacting a traumatic experience. It is a very young child experiencing play for the 1st time… in this older body. And none of it has anything to do with their body’s physical age.
For the younger child, parents need to give themselves permission to be playful. When adults join in with their 2 year old and see the tissue box as a real truck, they bring themselves down to their child’s level and a very special connection happens. You are present there together. That is an amazing space where the parent experiences how their child thinks. Parents and carers are shocked by how much little children are willing to share when they as parents lose their adult status, responsibility, rationalisation… and connect “playfully” in that moment.
Play does not stop in childhood. It is the fun bit of life and not everybody has a playful side. So, start being silly and learn how to play, whatever your age!