The “Rules” of Play

The rules of play are simple. There are no rules for the child. There are, however, rules for the adults. Adults can either hinder, or help, play be what it is intended to be. Play, by definition, is intrinsically motivated, self-directed, and natural. “Play is a child’s natural language and the toys are their words, ” Garry Landreth (The Art of the Relationship, 2001.) Play is not only how children communicate, but it is how that express themselves, process experiences, and make sense of the world around them. 

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These “rules” are what we Play Therapists live by.

Disclaimer: Although these are the rules Play Therapists follow in the playroom with clients, following these rules does not make you a Play Therapist. Sixty-one graduate hours and several thousand clinical hours under direct supervision have taught me to use these guidelines in a very specific way to form a therapeutic relationship with my clients and create an environment for positive change to occur in the child’s perception of self, the world, and circumstances.

That being said, parents can apply these same rules if they’d like to encourage a more active imagination, independent play, and allow more learning to take place naturally through play.

Rule #1: Allow the child to lead.

Play is natural for children. They do not need an adult to intervene and show them how to play by moving objects, making sounds, or deciding what happens next. Child directed play is best. This is why toys with batteries or electricity actually work against play. Imagine being a child playing in what looks like a kitchen and placing something on the stove and the stove responds, “Yummy. I like spaghetti!” But, you weren’t cooking spaghetti. In fact, you were pretending to be a mad scientist concocting a potion to kill aliens from the planet Zonkatron. Or, the adult in the room intervenes and says something idiotic like, “Oh, are you making something special for me?” This not only pulls the child out of the fantasy, anchoring them to reality, but also changes the motivation of the play to serving the interest of the parent and pleasing the parent, not the child.

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Rule #2: Play is not a time for education.

Learning takes place naturally during play. The infant/toddler brain is maze of channels, twists, turns, and roadways, but if not all of the passageways get engaged often, “roadblocks” go up. Parts of the brain actually die off and get pruned away if not activated. Just the same, parts that are engaged often become stronger. Do your best to fight the urge to teach the child colors, numbers, shapes, and sounds. Quizzing the child on what they know is also not appropriate during play. Things like, “What’s the horsey say?”, have no business in play. Learning letters, numbers, and so forth will happen in due time, in the classroom, or while you’re out and about as a family and talking about things you see.

Rule #3: Don’t ask questions you know the answer to.

I see adults break this rule ALL the time. They walk up to a child holding a ball and say something like, “Are you holding a ball?” or, a child slams a car into another car and screams, “Boom! They just crashed!” and the adult says, “Uh oh, did they crash?” Asking questions like this can make the child feel misunderstood (and make the adult look stupid). Remember, play is about expressing one sef so if there’s enough information for a question, there’s enough for a statement. Instead, try, “Whoa, they crashed hard. I heard the boom”. The child feels seen, heard, and understood.

Rule #4: Grant in fantasy what you can’t grant in reality.

This is a big one! Children’s play is not always an indicator of their deepest, darkest secrets, nor is it predictive of future actions. The child who plays “good guy, bad guy” and has the two beating each other up isn’t necessarily going to be aggressive or violent as they grow up. Just the same, the child who plays army and blows up the whole town isn’t necessarily going to make bombs in their garage and blow up their school as a teen either. Children use play to explore different sides of their personalities, try out various behaviors and actions, and sometimes something like blowing up a town in their play makes them feel powerful and strong n a day when they may have felt weak and misunderstood. Children may also use play to give alternate endings to real life experiences, but they don’t need to be reprimanded for pretending they punched Aunt Helga in the face for that smelly kiss. It’s pretend and it’s natural and therapeutic.

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Rule #5: Don’t label things the child hasn’t labeled.

To the adult it’s a stick, but to the child it may be a sword, a hammer, a magic wand, a syringe, a whip, a light saber, lipstick, a cane, Cruella Deville’s cigarette, a plane, or something that’s never even been invented. Don’t assume you know what the child is pretending, or that they even want you to know, by interfering and giving their object a name. If you’re wrong (which you probably will be), you’ll pull them from the fantasy into reality and distract from the process.

Rule #6: Don’t set limits until limits need to be set.

The average two year old hears the word, “No” over seventy-five percent of the day. From their, it just continues with “don’t touch that”, “don’t put that there”, “don’t do that”, “stop that” and on and on. Play should be a time in the child’s day where rules don’t exist until there’s really a problem. A child shouldn’t pick up a doll, walk to the pretend kitchen and hear, “Remember not to dump the food all over the place and be sure you don’t get her wet this time”. I roll my eyes and shake my head at this parent. I just want to scream, “Why not?! Who the eff cares if the plastic doll gets wet?” Play should be freeing, unlimited, cathathartic…so only set limits when there’s danger or the possibility of irreversible damage to something.

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There are many more I won’t get into, but these are my favorite of the basics.

So, as a parent, what can we do? Let them play! Let them lead! Let them decide how objects are used, where they go, how they move, who gets to be what and say what. Let the child explore, imagine, be creative, be destructive, and be expressive. Respect play for what it is, don’t try to change it, and recognize it’s value in your child’s development metally, emotionally, socially, and even physically. Children need play free of adult interaction, intervention, and direction.

Stay gold,

That Girl

Finding the Perfect Child Care Program

When I heard they had a two year wait list and were a “Texas Rising Star” campus, I decided I just had to take a tour and get my boys on that wait list asap! I even took a tour  during nap time because I was so excited to see what they were all about. I was so thrilled to be a part of this campus…

…until I wasn’t!

I pulled up to the school and peered over the busted fence to see several four year old (or maybe even five year olds) playing on the playground, and in the sandbox, in their underwear! No shirts, no shoes, no pants! I felt my body immediately try to reverse and retreat back home, but the Austinite in me decided to be open minded and I decided to proceed with a willingness to find out what this place was all about (and why the students were playing outside in their underwear). This was problem #1.

Problem #2 & #3: We got out of the car and wandered around aimlessly looking for the entrance until a “teacher” dressed in vintage booties, an ironic tee, and daisy dukes led us through the gate. I’m all for showing your personal style as a teacher, but I also believe in professional dress for professional learners.

Problem #4 & #5: We enter the “office” and it reeks of poop. There are a bunch of two year olds using the office restroom with the door open for all to enjoy. And…the office is a DISASTER! Papers were piled high to the sky, file folders were jumbled up behind the desk, there was no where to sit, and supplies were randomly placed anywhere and everywhere.

I. Must. Proceed.

At this point I decided there was no way in hell my boys would ever attend this school, but it was like a train wreck I couldn’t turn away from. I found myself drawn towards the classrooms because I just had to find out what it was that made this place worth a two year wait? Perhaps I was the crazy one? Surely there’s something I just haven’t seen yet, right?

Problem #6-10: The director was a young gay man. This was a non issue to me until I met three more young, gay, male teachers. I’m in no wayhomophobic, nor do I think gay men can’t be day care teachers, but when 5 out of 7 teachers are young gay men, I wonder,”Is this diversity, or have you just replaced one sub-population with another?” I want diversity for my children, not only in sexuality, but in gender, race, culture…

I continued to tour the school although I found it obnoxiously overstimulating, dirty, and cluttered. My mind was racing from one sight to the next. What I fell in love with; however, was it’s ideals. It’s philosophies. It’s approach to learning. The biggest issue to me was the environment, but so much of a child’s learning at this age is environment so I still couldn’t consider this place. No matter what their educational philosophy is, a child just will not thrive in a school of chaos.

So…what should a parent look for when choosing a school, or child care, for their infant or toddler.

  1. An infant/toddler classroom should be tech free and battery free. No ipads, no computers, no smart phones, no tablets, and definitely no TV. This age group not only can become overstimulated, but they learn best from experience, not entertainment.
  2. There should not be discipline, time outs, or any consequences for misbehavior. This age group (baby-12m) does not know how to misbehave. Everything they do is driven from curiosity, lack of ability to communicate, and instinct. They need positive guidance, modeling, and redirection.
  3. Everything should be at the child’s level. Teaching decor, mirrors, sensory items, nap mats, toilets, even toys, should be accessible to the child and hung at the child’s eye level (not the adult’s). This shows the children this place was designed with them in mind and this is a place where they’re superior, not inferior.
  4. A child care center, or school, should not be sterile, but it should be clean. If it smells of lysol or other toxic chemicals, it’s not the place for your child. Ask the director what they use in cleaning and how they disinfect. They should be cleaning regularly, with help from the children, and using nontoxic, VOC free, fragrance free cleaners.
  5. Studies show that an organized room is an organized mind. Children thrive in an organized space! Areas of the classroom should be distinguished and/or framed using rugs, mats, or shelving. Perhaps various colors signal different areas, but it should be visible to adults where each area of the classroom is, and things should be labeled and clutter free. Each child should have a space for their own things as well.
  6. The environment should be calming and the colors should be neutral. Color is powerful for the mind and soul, therefore can be overstimulating to infants. Neutral tones should be used and a soft pallet of color. An infant classroom should also have furnishings made of real world, natural materials such as wood, or metal. This allows the child’s brain to take in new information from the learning activities, without being overstimulated/exhausted from it’s surroundings.
  7. Plenty of natural light and access to the outdoors is crucial.
  8. If the director, or teachers, tell you they have a curriculum for infants, RUN! This age group should not be “taught”, “educated”, or “entertained”. They should be provided an environment for learning to take place through sensing, exploration, and experience.
  9. Do they allow “drop in” care? If so, be prepared for random kids you don’t know to be included in your child’s class from time to time. This will not only disrupt routine and sense of security for your child, but will introduce new personalities, new germs, and new dynamics into the structure of their day. Not healthy.

I liked that this particular school described themselves as “child centered” and explained to me that they have a play based learning program. That’s generally what I want to hear. They also told me they don’t force children to apologize for behaviors because they believe a child will find their own way to communicate when they feel sorry for their actions. I agree with this. Children should not be forced to apologize, be affectionate, or make eye contact. The child’s natural feelings should always be validated and respected. I liked that they seek diversity in student make-up, but I would’ve liked to see diversity in the teaching staff as well. I also like the idea of allowing children to be free and make their own choices as much as possible, but whether or not they wear clothes at school was a bit too far for me.

Good luck…it’s a jungle out there!

Stay gold,

That Girl

 

I Already Miss This

When you’re a mom, everyone tells you to “enjoy every moment” and how “it goes by so fast”. I’ve only ever wanted to be a mom so I have breathed in every moment and treasured each day, but this doesn’t stop time from racing by at warp speed. When I was pregnant I told myself I’d document everything, fill photo books, and date each milestone, but then they arrive and you find yourself spinning in circles trying to catch your breath and suddenly they’re almost through their first year of life and you know there are already things you’ve forgotten they did that were so wonderful and hundreds of moments you already miss. 

I already miss…and never want to forget…

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  • The way Cannon would wake up the entire neighborhood with his pterodactyl sounds after he first found his voice
  • How Cash would hold his eyes open as if falling asleep meant life or death
  • Taking a bath with him because they were tiny enough we all three fit in the tub together
  • Sneaking into bed next to their tiny Snugglenests and smelling their sweet breath, hearing their grunts and groans as they slept
  • I miss the tearless cries and toothless mouths
  • Nursing them in the tub
  • Cash used to get the hiccups ’round the clock & I loved the way he’d cling to me like a baby monkey with each jolt
  • The way they’d grunt like zombies and Cannon would smack his tummy or beat his chest demanding more food
  • The look on Cash’s face when he rolled over for the first time which scared the hell out of him
  • The way bashful Cannon used to put his cheek to his shoulder and look up at strangers as if he knew what a Gerber baby he was
  • Wearing them in my ACK wrap knowing they’d fall asleep in a matter of minutes with their head on my chest

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  • Nursing them and watching them search desperately for each other’s hands and seeing the relief when they found each other
  • Taking hour long naps with one (or sometimes both) snuggled in to my side or asleep on the breast
  • The way Cash would pet my face or stroke my hair as he fought sleep
  • Bundling them up in their Woombie swaddles and seeing them inch towards each other to spoon all night
  • Cannon talking to himself in his carseat mirror like he’d found his best friend
  • Cash kicking his legs wildly in the tub

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  • Their sweet chubby faces peeking out from under their Walrus or Hippo hooded towels
  • The excitement when they heard Rafi’s “Day-O” song the first time
  • Cash’s huge smile and sly giggle when I’m cleaning countertops
  • The way Cannon’s jowls rest on his carseat straps
  • Cash losing his voice from making zombie noises all night
  • The snuggles in the morning…heads on my shoulder
  • Sleeping next to Cannon from 4am-6am and kissing his juicy lips when he wakes up
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  • Cash log rolling from end to end on the bed attempting to dive off before we catch him
  • Wrestling them both after bath wondering when it was they stopped laying there letting me massage them
  • Biting their “biscuits” during diaper changes and hearing them laugh hysterically
  • Chasing them room to room and scaring them so bad they levitate and crack up laughing
  • Cash’s face on the swings

This list will only continue to grow and grow and grow as their personalities develop and as we experience more of this beautiful life together. I could choose to be sad as I think of days gone by, or I could focus on how wonderful it is that there’s even more of this to come. Their hands will not always be so small and chubby, but I’ll always have them to hold. Their feet will one day stomp instead of pitter patter, but the sound of them in my home will always be music to my ears. Their mouths will one day kiss a woman they’ve fallen in love with instead of me, but…their hearts will have always been mine first. Twice blessed, forget the rest.

Stay gold, That Girl

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