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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