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Introducing Special Play Time- an 8 Step Guide

family-play3.s200x200Play is the most important activity of children. It is far more than just a way of filling in time between other activities such as learning. It is how they learn about themselves, their world and their relationships. Play is vital for all areas of development- physical, intellectual, language, emotional and social. If you recall for yourself what it felt like to play as a child, you might remember that during play you felt free from stress and pressure, you felt joyfully alive, and you felt engrossed, anchored in the present moment. As adults, these feelings can still be achieved, although often it is not called play, but might be called sport or music or dancing or a hobby. But if it engrosses you, it feels good, it is done for pleasure rather than just an end product then it is still play.

Children need plenty of time to play autonomously. In today’s fast-paced culture, many children’s lives are so structured that they have little time for free play. They need to get messy, they need rough and tumble play- spinning, rolling, hanging upside down. They need to challenge themselves. They need plenty of opportunities for creative and imaginative play, and opportunities for social play, where they can learn to negotiate, cooperate and make compromises.

According to Garry Landreth, author of ‘Play therapy- the Art of the Relationship, ‘Play is the language of children.’ While it is important to allow children to learn to play on their own, it can also be very beneficial to join children in their play occasionally in order to connect at a deeper level with them, to learn their ‘language’, and to gain a much deeper understanding of them. Setting aside 30-60 minutes, once a week for each child can have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship with each child. When done well, this conveys to the child that they are important to you and they are accepted just as they are. It helps them to feel heard and understood.

Sow how is this done well? Below is a step-by-step guide to creating a weekly ‘special play time’ with each child.

  1. Plan – How are you going to schedule in  a set play time once a week for each child? Chances are, as a parent you are probably leading a busy and full life. However, if you know how beneficial this play time can be, not just for your child but for you as well, you will find a way to fit it in. If 30-60 minutes seems too daunting start with 20 minutes. Can you enlist the help of your husband/wife/ partner or friends, neighbours or relatives to take other children off your hands for a short time while you have one-to-one time with one child? Can you play with a younger child while an older one is in school? Can you play with an older child while a younger one is asleep? Discuss the logistics with your partner if you have one, and make sure they are on board and can help support you.

  2. Minimise distractions – During special play time, switch off your phone, TV, radio, and anything else that may be a distraction. Make sure you are not going to be interrupted. You might want to put a sign on your door asking visitors to come back in 30 minutes. You need to be able to give all of your attention to your child for this to be effective.

  3. Explain special play time to your child Tell them that for the next hour (or 20 or 30 minutes, whatever time you have chosen to dedicate), they can play (pretty much) how they want, and you will join in with their play. This will be their special play time with you. Then when the time is up you will go back to doing your own things, until the next special play time, which will happen again very soon. (NB special play time should be unconditional, and not used as a reward for good behaviour, or withheld following undesirable behaviour.)

  4. Follow their lead – Get down to their level. If they are playing on the floor get yourself comfortable so that you can stay present to them and not be distracted by discomfort. Let them direct the play. Avoid making suggestions or leading the play. Watch what they do, watch their facial expressions and say what you see. For example: “you are building a big tower. You are driving the car into the tower. Crash!You loved watching all the blocks crashing down” Try to stay with this type of running commentary, making a comment approximately every 15 seconds, so that they know you are following what they are doing. If they ask you to join in with the play be careful not to get carried away with your own play. Keep following their lead. If they give you a pretend drink, ask in a whisper “do I like it?”, rather than assuming it is supposed to taste good. If they hand you a toy phone, whisper “what should I say?”, so that the play stays going in the direction that they want it to go in.

  5. Avoid asking questions – Apart from the ‘whispering technique’ described above, it is recommended that you don’t ask questions as these interrupt the flow of the play, and the play becomes more on your agenda than theirs. Equally, special play time should not be used as a time for you to try to teach your child or test their knowledge.    .

  6. Match your energy and tone of voice with theirs – If they are loud and exuberant, then you be loud and exuberant, if they are quietly concentrating then you speak in a quiet voice. Mirroring your child’s affect in this way shows them that you are with them and you understand and can relate to them.

  7. Give them advance notice when time is nearly up – It can be upsetting for a child to have to stop something abruptly when they are engrossed and having fun. Gently guide them back into their everyday activities by giving a five minute and one minute warning. You could say something like, “Darragh, we have five more minutes left of this special play time, and then it will be time for us to collect your sister”

  8. Finish on time! – Your child might be very reluctant to finish this special time with you*. It is best to acknowledge this disappointment or anger to them, but not to give extra time. You can reassure them that there will be another special play time very soon, but now it is time to do something else. Your child will soon get into the routine of knowing that time is up, and should get more accepting of this over time as they learn to trust that special play time is a regular occurrence.

    I hope that you really enjoy your special play time and get as much benefit from it as your child will. For some parents playing can be difficult. If you find it challenging then you might benefit from attending one of my play workshops where you will have a chance to explore your feelings around play and learn effective play techniques within the safety and support of the group.

*If your child is very upset when special play time is over, it can sometimes be because the contrast between how you relate together during this time, and how you relate in everyday life is too great. You may want to look at how you are feeling in your day-to-day life, are you stressed, do you find yourself correcting and giving commands more than connecting with, acknowledging your child and accepting him or her exactly as they are? If you feel that you need help in building connection with your child you can contact me for support.

Connecting with your Child Through Play