Playing to Connect and Heal

When I ask families how they are adjusting at home with their new child, they will often state, almost as an apology, “All we do is play; we are just playing.” When I hear this answer I want to shout from the rooftops “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! They are engaging in play!”

Play is the most important activity of childhood. Karyn Purvis, co-author of The Connected Child, states, “Play is the language of children.” It is through play that children learn how to navigate the world and their place in it, how to gain confidence in their skills, and how to begin to make sense of their past and begin to heal from that past. Play is the best tool a parent has to build a strong attachment with their child and to help the child develop a strong foundation of trust and security. Lifeline even utilizes Theraplay in counseling to help families to connect and deepen attachment. You can hear from one Lifeline family on the power of play here.

Knowing that play is important and builds connection why, then, do we struggle to incorporate play into our lives? Parents gave insight to that question in a June 2016 poll conducted through a webinar hosted by Alabama Pre-Post Adoption: 40% stated they were too busy; 32% indicated sheer tiredness; 15% stated it is awkward and they don’t know how; and 5% stated it brought them stress.

Getting Started Building Connections

Play should not be stressful but fun for both parent and child. There is no set formula for playing “correctly,” so don’t let fear drive you to neglect such a powerful tool. However, consider the following suggestions to get started on a path to play:

  • Reflect on your own childhood and what you enjoyed; then, pass that enjoyment on to the next generation!
  • Observe your child as they play. See what interests them and then join them in play. Children love to be the leader in play and having a parent mirror what they are doing creates a great bond.
  • Help them to build and expand on their interests or develop new interests together.
  • Have a playful attitude throughout the day. Be intentional about making the most mundane tasks fun. For example, walking from the store to the car can turn into a quick game of follow the leader. Sitting at a red light can prompt a game of “I spy”. The Big Purple Dinosaur, Barney, was onto this concept as he sang “Clean up, Clean up, ‘cause we like to do our share,” while picking up toys. This playful song makes the job fun, and gets it done without the power struggle!  So make up some songs of your own as you rake leaves, fold laundry and do the dusting. We had P.J. races at our house to see who could get theirs on the quickest, it took all the stall tactics out of going to bed!

Puppets and Role Play for Learning and Practicing

Additionally, a child can learn life skills and practice good behavior through play. Research shows that play can help our children build connections in their brain that will help them with self-regulation. For example, using puppets and role-playing is a great way to teach the behavior you want to see in your child and the character traits you want to instill in them. Using puppets and role playing (even more fun if costumes are involved) are very helpful for a child to practice for an upcoming new situation such as their first trip to the dentist, meeting a new friend, or how to behave in church or at sister’s piano recital. It also allows your child to practice the correct behavior you want your child to achieve. Your child will love to take the role of the parent in these situations and you can misbehave as you take the role of the child. Then, swap parts so everyone has a chance to experience feelings and emotions on both sides. I guarantee it will end in laughter!

Healing through Play

Healing comes through play. Movement is a key part of allowing many children to relax. Play can disarm a child. Then, when they are in a relaxed state, they are able to connect with their memories and feelings. Be careful to listen to the things they are saying as they play with the tea set or push the dump truck through the sand. You may gain great insight into what your child is thinking and what they have experienced in their past. As a child plays you may find them reenacting stories from their past. This experience allows the child to make sense of their past and can bring resolution to the trauma they have experienced.

Intentional Play

Bryan Post, a licensed clinical social worker and family therapist, recommends the 10-20-10 principle to help parents begin to build play into their day. He suggests 10 minutes of play in the morning with your child to start the day on a positive note. Then, play 20 minutes in the afternoon when they return home. This time helps them (and you) decompress from the day and process their experiences. Add another 10 minutes of quieter play in the evening as you move toward bedtime, and you will have intentionally devoted a small amount of time to activities that will have a tremendous impact on your connection and healing with your child. Intentionality in this area will make a huge difference. Use the following acronym to remind you about playing with your child:

P | Plan to play with your child each day.

L | Allow your child to lead the play.

A | Be attuned to your child’s emotions during play.

Y | You are the most important part of the equation. The interaction you have with your child will build lasting memories and connections.

I leave you with these wise words from a man many of us probably connected with as young children, Fred Rogers, “ When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

For the additional help in the area of play check out the following resources:*

What’s Your Play Personality by Michael Monroe

The Out of Sync Child Has Fun by Carol Stock Kranowitz

I Love You Rituals by Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.

*If you choose to purchase books through Amazon, be sure to select Lifeline Children’s Services as your charity on so that your purchases can help the ministry of Lifeline.