Using Play to Enhance Your Child's Well Being

Playing together is a wonderful way to connect with and enjoy our children, and it is also essential to their emotional health.

Play is a window into how our children see and feel about the world. It is during their busy hours of play that children work away at making sense of the world around them, and the internal world of their thoughts and feelings. Creative, imaginative play is essential to children’s emotional and cognitive development. 

Having regular time to enjoy playing with our children strengthens our relationship with them. Playful, fun interaction bathes both our own and our children’s brain in positive chemicals that deepen our emotional bond. The more we are able to create fun times together, the easier it is to weather the more trying times. Because let’s be honest, while parenting can be deeply rewarding, it can test parents to their very limits. 

With some simple skills in our tool kit, we can ensure that playing with our children is fun and rewarding for us both, while also meeting our children’s emotional and developmental needs. 

Skills for Playful Parenting 

1. Making Time
As a parent, time is often like gold dust - hard to find and even harder to hold onto.  Making time to play with our children can easily slip down the never ending ‘to do’ list.  We can worry that if we do not have a ‘decent amount’ of quality time to play that it is perhaps not worth bothering.

Regular half hour slots of playtime with our children are ideal.  However, a 5 or 10-minute burst of your undivided attention and active interest gives your child the wonderfully positive message that “I’m really interested in you – your thoughts and ideas, and your feelings”.

These moments of connection and your expressions delight and interest in your child are the building blocks of your child's self-esteem.  

2. Be Clear 
Your child will nearly always want to play for longer than you are able or want to.  Managing their expectations and disappointment well, can avoid the upsets and arguments that can sometimes leave us wondering why we bothered.  

Let your child know how long you have at the beginning e.g. “I have ten minutes before I put tea on, would you like to play together for a little while?”

Give your child regular countdowns e.g. “we have five more minutes and then it will be time to stop playing”.  “We have one more minute of playing and then it will be clearing up time”.  “Time to stop now, we can come back to this and play it again another day”.

With younger children you can show them using your arms.  Stretch your arms really wide for a long time and by smaller degrees for shorter amounts of time.

Preparing your child to stop playing in this way means that the disappointment or frustration of stopping comes gradually, and is more manageable. If you can see that your child is disappointed, name it.  E.g. “it’s hard to stop when we’ve been having fun – you look upset/ annoyed” etc.

3. Let Them Lead
Let your child be the director of your play together.  Imagine yourself as an actor on their stage and encourage and follow their ideas.

Avoid getting over enthusiastic about your own playful ideas and taking over the play. This often frustrates the child and limits their exploration of their own imagination and creativity.

Avoid the urge to correct and teach during playtime. Play is not about ‘getting it right’; it is a time for imagining and creating. It really does not matter if your child paints the horse blue and humans have three eyes. Go with the wonder of your child’s imagination.

4. Be Curious
Your active interest in your child’s play meets their emotional need to feel seen, heard and known by you.

Questions are a key part of being curious but it is important to distinguish between open and closed questions (see table). Try to limit your use of closed questions because they elicit a short yes/ no answer rather than inviting your child to tell you about their creative ideas.

Instead aim for open questions that actively communicate your interest. Your child will feel invited to explore their thoughts, feelings and ideas with you in more detail, and this will create a deeper sense of connection and intimacy.

Open Questions Closed Questions/ Statements

“Tell me about your picture”

“Is that a farm? / It’s a farm with a cow”

“What’s happening here?”

“Is it a battle? / The red soldiers are going to loose”

“What are you making?”

“Is it a pancake? / You’re making pancakes”

Using these four simple skills can have a profoundly positive impact on our children’s well being and help to make your play times together much more enjoyable.

A toolkit of such skills gives you the confidence to create fun times, and the knowledge of how to deal effectively with the difficult and challenging times.

Art Psychotherapy for Children

Sometimes those challenging and difficult times can also feel too confusing, distressing or stuck, and we or our child can really benefit from talking with a counsellor who is experienced with the issues that children and parents face. Our children are not born with a manual of how to relate to them and bring them up to their best potential; sometimes we can feel like we are stuck in a difficult rut with our child and cannot find a way out. Sometimes our children experience life events which leave us unsure how best to support them. There are a myriad of books to read about children’s needs and parenting strategies, but sometimes it can be immensely re-assuring for us as a parent, or for our child, to talk with someone who is familiar with and experienced in supporting parents and children to move through the difficulties they so often face.

Creative arts psychotherapy can offer both children and adults a safe way to express powerful and difficult emotions. Without such an outlet, it can feel as though the difficult feelings are taking over our child's life. In young people difficult emotions are often expressed through challenging or withdrawn behaviour. Creative  arts counselling uses drawing, painting, clay, music, puppets and sand tray so that the child or adult does not always have to rely on words to express what is going on inside of them. Instead, they can use images, symbols and metaphors to connect with feelings, issues or events affecting their well being and which they may otherwise be unable to express.

We all need to be able to let someone know how we are feeling and what is going on inside of us. Often when children are struggling to find a way to connect with the people who love and care for them, or we as parents are struggling to make sense of our feelings, creative arts counselling can open a window and allow us to begin to find a language with which to share our experience.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6
Written by Gayle Creasey, UKCP
Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6

Welcome to my profile which I hope you will find helpful.  My name is Gayle Creasey and I offer: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) therapy counselling and psychotherapy for adults, couples and young people aged 5-20 years. Mindfulness and self-compassion training for adults a...

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