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