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Understanding the Way Your Child Uses Play to Communicate

Susan Bartell
Every young child loves to play creatively with toys, games and just about anything else they can get a hold of. Play also represents one of the primary ways children communicate their feelings, fears and wishes. You can better understand how your child uses play and use this knowledge to unlock new ways to communicate with her.

Young children--even those with well developed language skills—don’t have the ability to communicate complex feelings using language. Instead, they use play to express feelings—especially negative feelings such as fear, frustration and anger. For example, your child might play ‘dentist’ in order to master her worries about going to have her teeth cleaned. She might pretend that two stuffed animals are fighting with each other to try and understand the argument she overheard between her parents. You may even overhear her telling her dolls not to worry when they move to the new house—that she will make sure they have a comfortable new home. The meaning in your child’s play may, at times, be more subtle than these examples, or it may have little or no discernible underlying meaning, but it is important to pay attention because you never know what you might learn.

The best way to learn to understand your child’s play is to make time to play creatively with her. The more often you play with your child, the more you’ll become an expert at understanding them play. Also, when your child feels comfortable playing creatively with you, she will be more likely to allow her deepest feelings to emerge.

Your child is more likely to express emotion in play when the play is less structured. Therefore, when you play together, invite play that is open-ended and creative. Utilize your child’s toys, dolls and even household objects. Let go of the need to play with items the way they are ‘supposed’ to be used. For example, if your child wants to fly her Flipsies House and Ocean Cruiser like an airplane while assuring Sandy that she is ‘safely buckled in’, recognize this as her way to reassure herself that she will be safe on your upcoming vacation flight. Play along, rather than reminding her that ocean cruisers can’t fly.

While engaging in creative play with your child, your role is to be a player in her game. Allow her to assign roles, tell you what to do and guide the play in the direction she wants it to go. Parents are generally accustomed to directing kids, correcting them and ensuring that they follow the rules. It can therefore be challenging to let your child to make the rules—but during creative play this is exactly what you need to do in order to encourage her to share her feelings. Let the play unfold as your child wishes. If you aren’t sure how to contribute, or what she wants you to do next, simply ask her—she’ll be happy to tell you!

Finally, if your child’s play reveals negative feelings—anger, jealousy, sadness, fear—resist the urge to try and refute these feelings. Trying to deny your child’s feelings or make her feel that they aren’t valid, will not make the feelings go away. Instead, she will find other, less healthy ways to express them. Instead, validate negative feelings, and, within the play, try to express your concern for your child. For example, if your child uses one doll to fight with another one, you might note: “that doll seems so angry...did the other one do something to hurt her feelings?”

It can take practice to learn how to encourage your child’s emotional expression through play, but once you do, you will find that it helps you understand your child’s feelings in a whole new and important way.
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Deborah Sharp Libby
Early Childhood Language and Reading Expert
Lise Eliot
Early Childhood Mental Development Expert
Helen Boehm
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Carla C. Johnson
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Susan Bartell
Child Psychology Expert
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