The Importance of Play

Hi there!

Thanks for sticking around!

After I finish my master’s degree, I want to become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Registered Play Therapist (RPT). I am currently a counselor-in-training, and everything I post is just my opinion on what I’m learning unless I share a direct quote from a textbook or article. This semester, I am taking Intro to Play Therapy. It’s only week 3 of the semester, but I feel like I’ve already learned so much valuable information! I will mostly be discussing play in regards to children in this post, but I do want to point out that play benefits everyone of all ages. It relieves stress and stimulates creativity.

Toys are children’s words, and play is their language.

Garry L. Landreth

The above quote is so simple, and yet, I think many of us do not realize how true it is. Children are not miniature adults. They do not have the vocabulary, cognitive, verbal, or emotional abilities that adults have. They can’t communicate with us in the ways that we adults communicate with each other. Children communicate through play. They process and express themselves through play. Children also make sense of the world around them through their play. It’s amazing and wonderful to view play from this perspective.

Think about a child, or even think of yourself as a child, and think about the ways that you played. What do you think you were communicating?

To illustrate this idea better, I’m going to share a goofy babysitting story. I used to babysit a lot when I was in high school, and one time, a child I was babysitting asked me to play “house” with them using their dollhouse and dollhouse family figures. The conversation went something like this:

Kid: I will be the baby!

Me: Okay, should I be the mommy?

Kid: No, Catie, I am going to be the mommy.

Me: Oh, okay, do you me to be the daddy?

Kid: No, I want the daddy.

Me (very lost at this point): Um, do you want me the dog…?

Kid: Oh, no, I am going to be the dog too.

Me: Okay, what do you want me to do?

Kid: You can be the toilet. You make flushing noises after each person uses it.

…!?

Now that I understood my task, I made silly flushing noises after she had each member of the family, including the dog, use the toilet. This child was potty-training at the time. Like with many kids, there were ups and downs and progressions and setbacks in their potty-training journey. I think it’s possible that they were using this play activity as a way of processing and understanding their potty-training experience. The above conversation is also a good illustration of open-ended vs. closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions often start with “what,” and they have many possible answers. They’re good for learning more about someone and making conversation. Closed-ended questions are questions that can be answered with a single word, like “yes” or “no.” These kinds of questions do not facilitate conversation as well. As you can see above, I could have learned what I was supposed to do much sooner if I had started with, “what do you want me to do?”

On the topic of questions, “why” is pretty much always going to get an “I don’t know” response, even with adults. It also puts people on the defensive. Because of this, I think it’s best to avoid them.

Back to children. Children also need to feel free in their play. When thinking about myself and my interactions with my little sister or the children I babysat, I interrupted their play way too much with questions and unfortunately, even evaluations. For example, a different child I was babysitting had all her Polly Pockets hanging by their necks from the balcony of her dollhouse, and I was horrified. What I should have done was sat down quietly and observed her play to learn more about what was going on. It turns out, she had watched a scary movie with a hanging scene, and she believes she was working through the confusion she felt. Horror movies and children really don’t mix. Another child I babysat had been allowed to watch The Human Centipede, and she was lining up her dolls in a “centipede” for weeks after. Anyway, when a child’s play is interrupted with questions or judgments about how they’re playing, it limits their freedom and their ability to communicate. I view it as like taking some of their words away. Some of us may even remember experiencing this. Like, I remember coloring something in black in my coloring book and being peppered with questions about why I did that and what was wrong with me. I concluded that black must be a “bad” color, and I didn’t use black crayons or markers again for years. It was probably a small event to the adult involved, but it added an unnecessary limit to my ability to communicate.

Of course, not all limits are bad. Some are useful. Obviously, we can’t just let children play with whatever, whenever. They can’t have free access to knives or to the car keys. But, when it comes to play, only necessary limits should be set. Limits that protect them and those around them.

Another point – if a child wants your participation in their play, and you have the time, play with them! But let them guide the activities. Be open to, and accepting (within reason), of what they want you to do.

That’s all I have to share on this topic today! I hope you enjoyed reading!