For babies, play might mean cooing with a caregiver or back and forth babbles, chewing on books or handling different textured items. As preschoolers, a lot of play revolves around pretend play, playing out scenes as “mommy” or “daddy” and the quintessential superhero versus villain scenes that are so common. They make up their own rules to their own games and change them as they see fit. Children play a lot with physical competencies - block building, running races, playing on the playground. Regardless of age, there is deeper meaning to their play than even they consciously understand.
In the examples given above, through play, babies are learning about their sensory world - smells as well as physical and visual sensations - relationships, and learning to trust that their caregiver is available and will provide for their needs. Repeated positive and encouraging play interactions help children develop a healthy sense of self and a confidence that supports their interactions in the world. Preschool games provide an outlet for sorting out social and cultural roles. Preschool children at play are figuring out what it mean to be a boy or girl, the struggle with morality and good vs. evil, their own sense of power and self-esteem, and they are learning that the world runs via rules and rewards/consequences. The fun time on the playground is where they build their sense of exploration and develop gross motor skills and strength and learn about physics (gravity comes to mind as a child falls from the monkey bars to the ground). The blocks they use help build fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination as well as the internal feelings of accomplishment (building something successfully; a reward for struggling to work those small muscles in those little hands), and a sense of power (they can also destroy their creation). These examples do not even scratch the surface of the value of different types of and venues for play. While not exhaustive, these examples do show how, for children, play is work.
Play is rich with metaphor, and the adult can have a particularly powerful role in a child’s play. Lev Vygotsky was a pioneer in the process of scaffolding that is used by many preschool teachers, child therapists (occupational, developmental, mental health), and also, perhaps unknowingly, by many parents. Scaffolding is the process of taking the child from where he or she is, for example if he or she is fixated on something, and guiding him or her to resolution or to a greater understanding via play.
A mother and daughter playing dolls might find themselves in a scenario where two siblings are not getting along (a parallel to the family's real life situation). The behaviors within the play (e.g., one sibling bossing around the other or one sibling separating the other out from the rest of the family) may expose the daughter's feelings of resentment toward a new baby sister, of her jealousy of not having the same level of attention from her mother since the birth of the new baby, or of her sadness that she now has to share her mother. The mother may be placed in the role of the new baby and, thus, have the chance to share how the baby feels about being part of the family and having a big sister (i.e., the mother becomes the voice of the baby so the older sibling can come to understand the baby’s experience). Or, the mother may find herself in the role of the older sibling and she can express - through the doll - what she suspects her daughter may be feeling - fear, anger, sadness, uncertainty, or excitement - about having a new sibling. In both instances, the mother is able to help provide words for feelings that are being enacted in the play. The child begins to feel understood and has an opportunity to experience empathy for the new sibling. The child may then be able to see the sibling in a different way - that the baby is hers, too, as part of the family, and that while she has experienced a loss, she can also accept the sibling as a gain. Play is an amazingly open format for children to process feelings and to accept new ways of thinking about things.
In our work as play therapists, children are provided a space where play is safe and sacred, and where trained experts, who understand child psychology, can interpret the meaning behind the play and promote emotional and cognitive growth within the play itself. Our work in play therapy and when counseling children is about:
- looking for opportunities within the child’s play to help the child express his or her feelings about different experiences and relationships,
- helping the child learn new skills (Vygotsky called this the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD), and
- supporting the child to work through these feelings in order to grow emotionally and cognitively through play
While we cherish this role, there is much you can do as a caring adult in the life of the child to help him or her become secure, confident individuals.
Posted by Andrea Hohf, AM, LSW
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Chapter 6 Interaction between learning and development (79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.