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

The Case Against Toys

My mother texted me last week and asked me about a couple of gifts she was thinking about for my twins for Christmas (she shops early). I googled the items she was referring to and read about the products. When I read the words “teaches your child,” “educational,” and “your child will learn,” I knew the toys were not for us. Ironically, the toys that “teach” your child actually counteract learning and stunt development. Shocker, right?

I refuse to have toys in my home that teach my children.

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I texted my mom back and reminded her that I don’t allow toys that have batteries or electricity. In fact, I dont have toys in my home that “do” things. A toy that does for a child robs them of the opportunity to do. The play becomes limited by what the toy has been programmed to do. It does not require imagination, problem solving, creativity, exploration, or observation. It is entertaining the child, which is not what play is about. It’s not about entertainment or distraction.

Play is a child’s natural language. It is how they make sense of their world, how they communicate, how they express feelings, and how they process their experiemces. Play by definition is intrinsically motivated, therefore a toy that gives the same response each time a button is pushed, or a lever is pulled, trains the child to seek extrinsic reward, rather than introinsic. So, once again, play is negatively affected.

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As a Play Therapist I always felt saddened by the child who would come into the playroom filled with open-ended toys, pick up a toy and try to press a button. They’d search desperately for an off/on switch, something to push, pull, turn on somehow before finally looking at me and exclaiming, “It’s broken” or “What does it do?” This child has been programmed for toys to  do the work for him and he no longer knows how to play.

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Toys do not need names either. A toy that comes with a name, or a label, pulls the child from fantasy and anchors them to reality. This is not a good thing. I don’t want my children growing up thinking a stick is just a stick and a box is just a box. The possibilities for items like this should be endless to a child’s imagination. I once put a whisk on the play tray of my five month old son’s walker and my stepson said, “Why did you give him a whisk?” I told him it’s not a whisk to the baby, it could be anything the baby wants it to be. He looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said, “But what else could it be?” Again, how sad. This child has lost the ability to imagine.

So…what do they play with?

  • ribbons
  • tin foil
  • bubble wrap, corks, sponges
  • spatulas, whisks, ladels, egg beaters
  • Measuring cups
  • salad spinners, drainers, muffin tins
  • egg cartons, boxes
  • bags
  • blocks
  • balls
  • cars, trains, planes (wooden toys)
  • books
  • crayons, shaving cream, play doh
  • musical toys, wooden toys
  • blankets
  • bubbles
  • swings, slides, ladders, jungle gyms
  • hula hoops, jump ropes
  • figurines

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If you buy your children pop up tents how will they learn to build forts? If you buy them the bubble machine how will they learn to blow bubbles? If you buy hot wheels track you’re limiting how far and which direction the cars can go? Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not grow up using iPads and tech toys…they grew up playing with what was around them and as a result they learned how to think and they became creators.

So, my children will not watch TV. They will not have ipads. They will not use smart phones until age appropriate and they will not play with toys that need batteries or need to be plugged in. They will learn to be resourceful, creative, and imaginative to play and to make sense of the world around them.

Stay gold,

That Girl

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Why I Do What I Do

People are often curious about why I do “so many things”. They wonder, “What’s the connection?” or “Why do you own a baby biz if you’re a counselor?” and my favorite, “What exactly do you do?”

The truth is, all the roles I fill are related. 

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When I was a sophomore in college I remember meeting with my guidance counselor and telling her I wanted to work with kids in the hospital as a counselor, but also take care of babies and maybe own my own center one day where I can support parents. Her response? “Whoa, slow down, you can’t do it all.”

“Ummm….yes I can. My mom said so!”

So, I do it all. When I started as a “counselor in hospitals”, I was actually considered a Child Life Specialist. I provided distraction during medical procedures, medical & trauma play, emotional support, diagnosis education, and developmental support for children in the hospital. I have worked in the ER, PICU, day surgery, and NICU, but spent most of my time on the oncology unit (pediatric cancer). While on this unit I learned alot about the correlation between the products we use at home, the clothing and toys kids use, and the things in our environment with childhood cancer. They’re inextricably linked! In fact, childhood cancer has risen more than 25% in the last decade. What do you think is responsible? Watching those kids suffer made me interested in learning more about environmental toxins, but also I started being more cautious about what I used myself, and what I would allow my children to be exposed to in the future.

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My time working in hospitals include ALOT of time educating and supporting parents, including discipline support. From there I started offering parenting classes and workshops around the city. I noticed many of the families I worked wih were coming to me with children who already had a history of behavioral issues and poor habits and I wanted to help parents avoid these issues by getting to them earlier. In fact, my interest in infant development, postnatal care, and prenatal care grew stronger because I felt if I could help parents develop their skills that early, then perhaps there wouldn’t be as many concerns later on. I wanted parents to learn how to provide the best care for their children from the very, very beginning.

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Then, as parents began asking me for recommendations for products that were healthy for their children (i.e. didn’t have the chemicals that would later lead to nuerological and behavioral issues) I realized I was sending parents to 10-12 different websites for nontoxic, innovative products so I thought, “Why not have all these products in one place?” ShopWholeHeart.com was born!

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Even though I was working with expectant moms, newborns, and parents of older children, I couldn’t ignore the fact that there were still children out there whose needs went beyond that of love & logic, setting limits, or positive discipline. There were still children who needed a therapeutic relationship and loving guidance for processing challenging life experiences. That’s why I continue to see clients as a Counselor and Play Therapist.

So, you see? All of my various roles are connected. There actually is a method to my madness!

The Connection:

Healthy prenatal care and support leads to a healthy baby. A loving fourth trimester (0-3m) combined with healthy sleep habits leads to rested, loving, happy, attentive parents. This leads to happy toddlerhoood where limits are set with love as a result of a strong parent-child relationship. This leads to a well adjusted child throughout childhood, which means, less children in need of long-term counseling. Uh oh, am I working myself out of a job? LOL

ThatGirl, ShopWholeHeart

Let Your Child Play ALONE

Before you freak out and get all up in arms, hear me out. I’m not saying ALL THE TIME, goofballs, I’m just saying there’s a HUGE benefit to allowing your child independent play. Take it from a Play Therapist (muah). 

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1. KIDS ARE PEOPLE PLEASERS

When your child plays with you, another adult, babysitter, or even another friend, their creativity is sometimes swayed. They might make decisions based on what they think the other person wants. Perhaps in their imagination they really want to build a candy house with their legos, but they think dad wants them to build a big tall tower so they go ahead and build the tower so dad will be pleased. When they play alone, they are free to make their own decisions.

2. PLAY IS ABOUT FANTASY, NOT REALITY

I cringe sometimes watching adults “play” with their children knowing they have ulterior motives. Play should not be a time of teaching or lecturing. For example, when your child is playing with the barnyard animals, it’s not a time to teach them the proper names of the animals and the sounds that they make. Remember that in your child’s imagination, these might not be barnyard anmals. They could be monsters, soldiers, fairies, or aliens.

Also, I often see parents using play as an opportunity to teach life lessons. Just because your child is making people fight in his play doesn’t mean he’s going to be a fighter or grow up to be violent. Play is for expressing in fantasy what cannot happen in reality and it’s perfectly healthy to explore all sides of the self in play.

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3. CHILDREN NEED TO LEAD THE PLAY

Play is intrinsically motivated, meaning there are no rules and there’s no final product. A child needs permission to play freely, make decisions on their own, and problem solve independently. Even the most well meaning adult can say or do things that interrupt the natural flow of the play and can sometimes distract the child.

4. PLAY CAN BE PRIVATE

Children often play out tough experiences and give situations they struggled with alternate endings. Perhaps they play out the scene where you made them clean up their mess and they want to yell and scream at you. This can only happen if they’ve had opportunity to play privately.

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5. PLAY INSPIRES GROWTH

Children learn through play. They need the opportunity to do things the wrong way, spell incorrectly, read the wrong words, and make mistakes. Play is a natural part of growth and development and ironically, more growth and development occurs during independent, free play.

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Now, it is also a great bonding experience to play with your child occassionally too, so here’s a few rules of thumb to follow:

Don’t ask questions: If you have enough information to ask a question, you have enough information to make a statement. Questions stunt imagination because there’s the pressure of answering “correctly”. Rather than, “Why is the princess locked away,” try “The princess is locked up.” When the child hears you acknowledging what’s occuring in the play, they’ll likely provide more information for you to follow along.

Don’t label things that haven’t been labeled: Remember, your child is using their imagination. If they haven’t labeled an object as a horse, a car, an apple, then it might not be. They could be pretending the horse is a dinosaur, the car is a spaceship, and the apple is a bomb that will wreak havoc on all in it’s path. Call it that, those, etc and leave things vague until the child tells you what it is to them. There’s no right or wrong in play.

Allow the child to lead: Do not involve yourself in the play. Let the child tell you what they want you to do, who they want you to be and what you say and do. This is the one place in their life where they’re in charge and it’s very empowering when mom or dad take a backseat.

Grant in fantasy what you can’t grant in reality: Remember, play is about exploring imagination, processing feelings, and playing out difficult emotions. Allow them to be the bad guy, act silly, fight, shoot, kidnap, and be loud. Exploring this side of themselves in fantasy may even decrease the chance of violence in reality.

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I use Sandtray Therapy and Play Therapy in my counseling practice with young children because children communicate through their play. Should you feel your child needs Play Therapy to process something difficult that has happened in their life, please email me at AustinPlayTherapy@gmail.com

Chelsea Vail, MA, CCLS, LPC-Intern

Under supervision of Karen Burke, LPC-S

The Burke Center, 8101 W Hwy 71, Austin, TX