Today I want to talk about the importance of children using play to get through new or challenging situations that they have experienced. I will be, of course, using a real example from my own life. I think children do this far more often than we even realize as parents or child care providers. If you see a child playing a bizarre game that you’ve never seen before, or acting out a more questionable scene, this could very well be them experimenting with something that happened to them or something they saw.
This summer, we had a bout of colds and/or allergies in our home, as I’m sure most children and families did. This caused an ear infection in my daughter, something we’ve dealt with many times. However, this time her ear infection happened when we were traveling and away from home. Given the circumstances, we had trouble fighting this ear infection and when we returned home to Montana, her provider recommended a stronger dose of medicine. This medicine was new for my daughter and happened to have a taste that was much worse than what she was used to, making it incredibly difficult to get her to take it. I tried everything! Finally, I found something that worked; I pretended to give her baby doll a dose of the medicine and then I also poured myself a medicine cup of milk to take my “medicine” with her. Two times a day, for a week, we had this fun and silly routine to get her to take her yucky medicine.
Eventually, my daughter started to play this game where she was the Mom and I had to take my yucky medicine. She would do all of the steps that I did to her. She would pretend to call the doctor and ask for advice (like I did), then she wanted me to pretend it was yucky, to pretend to spit it out (like she did), and then pretend to be really proud of myself when I ultimately took the medicine. She really liked when I emphasized the part about being scared of taking the medicine. This showed me that her fear of this new medicine that didn’t taste good really had an effect on her! I happily played the medicine game multiple times a day (and we still play it). I let her have her own plastic syringes that come in the children’s medicine boxes to keep with her toys so she could play medicine whenever she wants.
This whole scenario with the medicine was eye opening to me because it made me wonder how many children I have worked with who were working through strange or traumatic events that happened in their lives using play. It made me wonder if I supported them enough in working through these events, and finally caused me to consider how I could continue to support children’s play and exploration of confusing or challenging events.
Here are a few pointers that I came up with to help children who could be using play to work through something confusing or challenging for them:
First, watch and listen. Before you jump in, you should observe children to figure out what they are talking about and playing. This will give you an idea for how or when to get involved. You should be able to tell if it’s a typical game of “Mom and baby” or “superheroes” or something different that you haven’t seen before.
Ask questions. Questions can help you figure out what the children are playing, where they came up with the idea, what they need for their game, who is involved, what their next steps are, etc. If a child tells you they are playing police because their parent was pulled over for speeding, this will give you some good clues to what they need to work through and figure out in their mind as well as to come up with ideas for them for how you can guide them through their play scenario.
For example, “Oh, your mom was pulled over by a police officer for going too fast, were you in the back seat? How did that feel? Should we pretend I am you in the back seat and you are the police officer? You can tell me what to do and say.”
Let them take the lead. If children truly are working through an event using their play, do your best to let them lead the play. Go with their ideas, use their props, and let them show you how you can join them.
Extend and guide the play as needed. I already mentioned this above, but there may be times where you will have to intervene to make the play more appropriate, or to help other children be included, or even correct misconceptions. Using the scenario above, imagine the child acting out being pulled over said with worry, “my mom is bad because the police officer pulled us over and gave her a ticket.” I might take that opportunity to ask the child why he thinks his mom is bad. I would want to figure out his thinking and see how I can help him to get this figured out. From there, I might talk about adults making mistakes and inquire as to whether his mom was in a hurry to get somewhere and accidentally went too fast. I would help the child to understand that police officers are doing their job by helping mommies (and everyone) stay safe by remembering the rules, just like teachers do!
Involve families and other adults as needed. If you see play that is concerning or makes you worried for the child, be sure to start documenting this as soon as possible. Write down times, quotes, and anything else relevant to the child such as new behaviors, absences, loss of appetite, etc. Remember to only write exactly what you observe and not what you think or assume. Bring up concerns to families in a safe and gentle manner. Point out your observations and then ask them how best you can support them and their child before you make judgements or assume any action. If you suspect there is trauma happening at home or other places where the child spends time, always consult with a trusted coworker or supervisor and with CPS.
Montana Child Abuse Hotline (866) 820-5437
Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a new baby boy, a busy preschooler, and a bonus mom to two amazing teenagers. She holds both a Bachelors and Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. Meghan is currently working part time with Raise Montana as a project specialist where she writes blogs, curriculum guides, and hosts the seasonal book clubs. Meghan is passionate about using her experience as an early childhood educator and as a Mom to bring knowledge and inspiration to Montana child care providers