Play is the Primary Way Children Communicate
In this modern age parents feel a lot of pressure to fill their child’s day with a long list of activities aimed at maximising their child’s development and potential. Child sensory lessons, gymnastics, dance, tutoring, and other hobbies or classes to extend their skills. Although this is very admirable and prepares children well for the structured environment of school, they actually need support in another very important area of development…their emotions!
Children primarily communicate their needs through play and it allows them to express themselves in a symbolic way. It is the way that they process and explore things before they have the words to do so, and even as they get older play is still an integral part of the way they communicate their needs. Don't underestimate the power of allowing some unstructured play every day. It allows your child to work at their own pace and to work on things they determine are important (not things we decide are important) which gives them a sense of pride, independence, self worth and self efficacy (basically their believe that they can do “stuff” and achieve things). These are all very important in their emotional and mental health. Although this unstructured time might feel a little scary for parents, because there is no “end goal” or structure like sensory classes, dance classes or work with a tutor, what your child gets from this time is just as important.
I have worked in Play Therapy for a number of years and I can use this experience to help you structure your play room, toy corner or child’s bedroom to maximise the potential.
Either have shelves or boxes that you can compartmentalise different “types” of toys in. If your child can’t see it…they wont play with it.
Always make sure that they toys go back into the same place at the end of the day so that your child knows where to kind them. This helps them seamlessly play, process and communicate.
Don't feel the pressure that you need a huge/separate toy room or a million toys…this is not helpful for your child. They can only play with so many things before they become overwhelmed. Its better to have a small selection of toys on display, and if you do have lots of toys…still do this, just rotate them to keep your child interested.
Rather than a vast number of toys, it is more important that there are different “types” or “categories” of toys. Some examples (but don't feel pressure that you need EVERY SINGLE one on the list…you don't!):
Real Life toys - this can include toys like cash register, play money, dress up costumes, phone, dolls house (yes for boys and girls!) a variety of plain “people” toys (wooden with no, or limited facial expressions, but that do look like different people - different age, gender, physical appearance etc), puppets etc. These types of toys allow your child to play act communication and interaction. They might be processing or working through a troubling/challenging/interesting interaction, expressing and thinking about something they have seen or trialling and considering different types of roles, relationships or ways of interacting.
Creative expression toys - including paints, pens, paper, other arts and craft supplies. This allows your child a sense of freedom and they learn to express their needs, wants, fears and thoughts in an external way. It can be calming and soothing or it can be cathartic. Try not to dictate “what” they should be creating, just lay down some art supplies and when they start creating ask them what they are drawing. Try not to put your own interpretations on to it…if you don't like the quiet, then you can narrate what you see “You are using purple paint and making dots, now you are mixing in some green paint and swirling it all together”. Don't be worried if they mix colours, go out of the lines or don't use materials in the traditional way you would expect. This isn't your journey…it is theirs…so try not to stifle it with any adult rules.
Emotional release toys - different types of animals (aggressive, passive - so crocodiles, lions, dinosaurs etc would be aggressive, passive would be animals like cows, dogs, ducks etc), baby dolls and nurturing items like cribs, bottles, nappies etc (and again…yes for boys too!!!). These will allow them to work through different emotions that aren't always able or allowed in society, like working through of being angry (hence the angry toys) or releasing and expressing other needs for nurturing or needing to be looked after or other vulnerability (hence the caring and passive toys). It allows children to work through these challenging dynamics without feeling or being judged.
So there you go…some hints about how to maximise your playroom and the toys you choose, as well as their purpose. I would love to hear about your child’s play room/toy room and favourite toys. Have you selected any of the above toys intentionally? or do you notice your child working through any of the common themes above. Add your comment because I would love to know!
Until next time…