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

Sisters By Heart, Not By Blood

There’s a line in To Kill a Mockingbird; “You can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your family.” For me, this line tells the story of why I am the person I am today and it is because of God’s plan that I have been blessed with both.

Without them even knowing it, I became my parents “miracle baby”. Being a difficult pregnancy for my mom was the start of my stubbornness. Three months into my mother carrying me, she began dilating, had her cervix stitched closed and was placed on bed rest until the 8th month. My parents wanted multiple children, the picture perfect family, but unbeknown to them; they would never get pregnant again.

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Growing up, I also wanted the dream my parents envisioned. I always wanted an older brother. My parents, shot down that dream and told me it wasn’t possible! Darn! Even so, I wanted siblings. Being an only child wasn’t always easy and didn’t give me the advantage of making friends easily. I didn’t have many friends who lived closed by, and I was certainly never good at playing by myself!

I never would have imagined that many of my 7th grade cheerleading teammates would become people I now call sisters. Growing up as an only child, it is easy to fit into the “stereotypical” mold that only children are selfish, spoiled, and not maternal. It was for that reason, that up until about a year and a half ago, I was confident in my decision that I didn’t want my own children.  I didn’t have the experience that most get with having younger siblings. The lack of experience, and being the perfectionist that I am, feeling that I wasn’t maternal enough to be good at it, created a desire to not pursue that path. I was perfectly happy with my school “kids” and my fur babies!

Having friends that you can pour your heart out to, share your deepest insecurities with, and have them be your unbiased sounding board is a gift I will forever be grateful for.  I’m less selfish and I’m less stubborn because they never sugar coat whether I’m being unreasonable and unrealistic and in a lot of ways they know me better than I know myself.  They hold me accountable to loving myself, to being a better person, and their unwavering love and support reminds me every day that they are more than friends, they are sisters.

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Each of them are unique, all strong minded, and together we are a family. As we have grown from teenagers to adults, our differences have allowed us to grow closer together, to learn from each other, and I am blessed for that rarity.

One of the biggest things I am grateful for is them challenging me on my decision to not have children, questioning if that would be something I would regret looking back, and sharing with me all the reasons it was worth it.  Seeing my best friends go through the experience of carrying and raising their children, and having them embrace me as their Aunt, opened my view to a different sense of purpose…the concept of loving someone more than I love myself.

It was this love that allowed me the ability to open my heart more than I ever thought I could and embrace my husband’s children. It certainly wasn’t easy at first, and I continue to grow and learn everyday as a step-mom, but I’m better for it… for this has shown me that I am maternal and I am deserving of being a mom.

It’s funny how God’s plan is better than the one you have for yourself and how it comes full circle.  My parents are now grandparents, embracing a large family, I’m a mother to an amazing son and two bonus kids, and most importantly, I have what I always wanted…sisters!

Do you have lifelong friends that are more like brothers/sisters?

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