Play is a Child's Natural Language
Play is the way that a child makes sense of their world. Children use play to process and explore events that they experience, from the day to day, such as shopping and 'mummies and daddies', to the traumatic. Children who have witnessed or been involved in a frightening situation will rarely, if ever, choose to process this by talking about it. Instead, they re-enact it, or explore it through stories and games with similar themes, playing out endless different versions and roles and alternative endings. It is as if they literally want to 'get inside' life, and understand it by exploring it first hand.
Play is Experimental
Through play, children experiment, and learn. In the world of play, we can be different people, and make things turn out just the way we want. Or we can experiment with how it feels if things don't go our way, and then change everything, all over again. We can find out what it's like to be the giant, and experience just how he feels when he sits alone at the top of his beanstalk. Or we can spider our way up that water spout when the rain has just washed us down for the zillionth time. In play, we can be a new version of ourselves, someone completely different, or just the rock at the bottom of the pond. And at any moment, we can stop that game and move on to something else.
Play Feels Safer Than Talking
Talking is one hundred percent real. But play? Play is fictional, isn't it? When we play, the story, the metaphor, becomes a 'container', a safe place in which lots of feelings and emotions and explorations can be held, and if it all starts to feel a bit too much, well then, it was 'only a story'. As adults, we do this too! We watch soaps, or films, or go to the theatre. We become involved in the story, and we form opinions, judgements, about the characters and situations. We wonder how and if we would do things, if we were 'in their shoes'. And, yes, we get emotional, we feel. Sometimes we might even change something in our actual lives as a result of this fictional experience. But on other occasions, we might dismiss it as 'just something on the TV'. For both adults and children, the fiction gives us a sense of 'distance', that at times can help to shed light on reality, and at other times allows us to feel confident and safe: this is not about reality at all, it's 'only a story', and our feelings therefore cannot overwhelm us.
Make sure YOU are feeling Playful!
Before you begin playing with your child, check in with yourself. If you have just fallen out with your child, got mad, or are feeling frustrated, tired or emotional for this or any other reason, you need to let go of this before you begin to play. Remember, above all, this is supposed to be fun!
Let Your Child Lead
Suggest to your child, 'Shall we play', and then allow them to be completely in charge. Don't be tempted to 'agenda set', or to use the play as just another approach to 'get them to talk'. If you are going to take roles, let your child choose who you are both going to be. If you are to 'play yourself', (as often happens, especially with younger children) ask your child for some direction, for example, 'Where shall we pretend to be?', or, 'Shall I be nice, or grumpy, or something else?'. Try to keep your questions as open as possible and keep them to a minimum, after all, you are here to play!
Accept and Build
Keep this classic law of Improvisation at the front of your mind at all times as you play with your child. Accept, and build. It simply means that whatever the other person suggests, accept their idea, and then feel free to build on it in a positive way. If your child says, 'Now we are at the beach', don't say, 'The beach? I thought you just said it was raining!'. Instead, accept: 'Oh, the beach, I love the beach!', and build, 'Shall we paddle in the sea?'. By not creating barriers to ideas in this way you will both be able to move joyfully forward in the play, and your child will be encouraged to keep offering their ideas and suggestions. They will also feel validated, heard and respected.
Respect the Play
As you play with your child, keep in mind a strong sense of how important this time and experience is for them. They are expressing themselves in your presence, they are sharing their world with you, and even if you do not understand the play at a grown up, 'literal' level, rest assured that it is important and of great meaning. For this reason, don't break off the play suddenly and without warning, don't dip in and out of role, and don't make fun, even 'gently', of your child's ideas.
Notice Themes (But Don't Analyse Too Much!)
As the adult you might feel desperate to know what is going on in your child's life or feelings, and play does sometimes provide us with a window into their world, so it can be tempting to try to interpret the meaning of their play and draw analytical conclusions. Try not to do this too much, as not only will it spoil your own fun and playfulness, you might also be barking up completely the wrong tree, and in doing so miss what your child is actually trying to communicate. Instead, just keep a casual awareness of the themes in your child's play, and notice if they recur often.
Stay in the Metaphor
Children and adults enter fictional worlds to feel safe and contained. You can help to maintain this for your child by not suddenly introducing ideas or interpretations from 'reality'. You might be tempted to say, 'Are you worried about something?' or 'Are you being bullied at school?', or 'Is this about your Dad?'. But this will only serve to break the spell of the play and possibly cause your child to feel upset or confused. Instead, keep your discussions metaphorical. You might ask, 'What did it feel like when the beans grew into a beanstalk?', or 'What's it like having magical powers?', or 'I felt so sad when the ball fell in the pond, did you?'. By doing this, you are allowing your child to talk about all kinds of feelings in a way that feels safe.
Know your Limits
This post is intended to help parents use playful ways to improve their emotional communication with their child on a day to day level. If you have serious concerns about the physical or emotional welfare or safety of your child, don't hesitate to consult your doctor or other professional.
Hopefully you already play with your child as much as time allows you to. So please, keep doing this! And of course, offer them plenty of opportunities for different sorts of play, in different settings, with other children, and by themselves. Remember that whether or not you understand your child's play simply doesn't matter - for them, this time is invaluable. Through play they are constantly exploring, experimenting, trying, failing, learning, experiencing, expressing, wondering and feeling. And of course, most importantly, (although it's amazing how often it's underrated!) they are having fun!