Using Open-Ended Play to Talk About Hard Things With Children
Adults talk about their emotions and experiences. Kids play them. As the famous saying goes, “play is the work of the child, and toys are the tools”. If you have been trying to find a way to broach some harder subjects with your kids in a way that is honoring to their age and communication style...let play lead the way, even when it comes to the hard stuff. Help your child into the driver seat by using play to help them work out and express their emotions. Here are a few tips and ideas for using open-ended play as a powerful door to communication in the way that kids understand the best.
STEP ONE: COLLECT YOUR TOOLS FOR OPEN-ENDED PLAY
Categories of open-ended toys that lend themselves to exploring sensitive subjects
Real Life/ Nurturing Toys- Examples of real life toys would be things you see every day that you can use to act out different scenarios. For instance if you want to explore the changes in your child's life due to Covid, use toys that can represent things that are part of their day like school, figures of people, realistic animals, our waytoplay roads, and things that can be turned into buildings or places like blocks or magnet tiles. Nurturing toys would be items like dolls where they can use play to represent relationships etc.
Acting Out/ Aggressive Toys- Acting out and aggressive toys are things that they can use to represent scary things, fear, danger, or aggression. Don’t read too much into what toys they pick or how they play other than to give them some tools to help them express themselves and to simply help them get their feelings out through play. Toys like a crocodile, a spider, or something else that could easily be associated with something scary or aggressive are examples of acting out/agressive toys.
Creative/ Emotional Release Toys - Toys like dress up clothes and art supplies are great for creative and emotional release toys as they allow the child to become part of the story and express themselves with color, costumes, and storytelling.
STEP TWO: INVITE YOUR CHILD INTO A PLAY FOCUSED CONVERSATION
Tips for inviting your child into an open-ended play space set up for meaningful discussions
- Create an invitation to play to use yourself as an open-ended teaching aid and conversation starter about a particular topic
- Focus on building empathy by asking questions about how different animals/people feel in situations as you are playing the scenario
- It’s okay to set up an invitation to play with the goal of just playing yourself as a way to creatively communicate what you want to say to your child as well as invite them to communicate with you should they want to join in. If they are not ready to engage in the discussion through play, it’s okay to just begin by asking some questions and playing a bit yourself and then leaving it open-ended for them to come back to later in their play. Don’t put pressure on them to jump in quickly, especially if they are new to this kind of play. The child knows what they need and many times once you get the ball rolling, they will jump in and lead the way, but if the don't, they may just need a bit more time to warm up to this kind of play and conversation.
STEP THREE: REFLECT BACK WHAT YOU HEAR
Reflect back their emotions as a way to help them feel heard and help them elaborate areas they want to talk more about
- I see that the Elephant seems stuck. Why is he stuck? How does he feel that he is stuck?
- If they are receptive to giving feedback and express some negative emotions, resist any temptation to tell them what it “should” look like, fix it, redirect, or react strongly. One tool you CAN use is to act out the scene again and ask if there is anything they would like to change to help provide a different outcome, but again let them lead and don’t force it. Let them know by your example that it is safe to have all different kinds of emotions.
- Important Tip: if you notice significant changes in your child's behavior due to the circumstances in their life, professional play therapy is a wonderful tool for children. If you have concerns about your child, please seek professional help and do not try to use these techniques for formal play therapy.
A great resource for specific ways to word things while discussing hard topics with your kids is @theworkspaceforchildren on Instagram. She specializes in this area and has countless scripts to follow that you could easily incorporate into your play time together.
A big thanks to this post's guest specialist Michella Nassar, MAC.
To help you find ideas for creative invitations to play to use as conversation starters with your child, visit our Pinterest Page!
Enjoy the Journey,