It seems that the word "play" evokes a general sense for people that it is just what kids do. That they naturally know what to do and how to do it. I think it's important for parents to understand play even deeper than that. To understand what it prepares children for socially, emotionally, and cognitively. So today, I am going to summarize for you the importance of play and the influence it has on friendship skills.
What do parents need to know about play?
Ava is a 7 year old first grader whose parents are concerned that she doesn't do well on play dates, especially at her own home. She is described as "bossy" and not good at sharing. Her teacher reports that at school sometimes the other kids avoid playing with Ava and that she is working on some goals there.
The parents wanted to consult with me as I am a play therapist. I have a lot to say about the importance of play, I had a meeting with Ava's parents and a school observation in which I met with Ava's teacher to come up with a support plan. Here are the highlights of what I observed and advised.
Role of Child's Play
Play is the single most useful way that children prepare themselves for life. It helps them with flexible thinking, communication skills, processing events, dealing with stress, engaging others, practicing compassion and being creative. Moreover, play helps a child practice mastery which is an essential part of whole child development.
This area is where Ava was struggling. We discussed that her opportunities for interacting with other children needed to have elements of cooperative play (kids work on something together like building with legos and stacking with blocks), problem solving, sharing and expressing thoughts and feelings. Once the parents and teacher had these specific goals in mind they helped Ava practice listening to her peers before, during and after play. they also taught her the term negotiation and had her practice turn taking as a equal back and forth skill. Having clear goals, terms and consistency helped Ava remember what to do when playing with peers.
In this area, parents and teacher taught Ava that in her play with others she should express her feelings and practice in many ways (silly, serious, imaginative) trying in new roles. So, when Ava had her first few play dates the parents would suggest thing playing out a superhero, a princess, a mommy, a doctor etc...so she could take risks and safely realize what she likes and doesn't. It also gave her an opportunity to be tolerant of other children in understanding that sometimes you want to be the same thing and sometimes you want to play out different roles and both are okay.
It is through play that children develop advanced ways of thinking and learning. Language is formed through play and the more free and spontaneous play that they engage in the more solutions get to be practiced. This can be seen through very common forms of play like puzzles, building blocks, water and sand play. In Ava's case, she was a bright girl who liked to "do these things on her own..." because she believed she was faster and more skilled. Once this play was practiced, she learned to tolerate and even appreciate other's contributions to creating things together through play.
Young children develop physically very quickly. Running around and chasing each other or playing on the playground is an essential part of friendship building in young children. Not only are they building muscles and coordination, they are figuring out how to relate to one another. Ava was taught that playing tag, climbing trees and balancing on walls and beams were opportunities to make friends. Instead of being hyper competitive in this type of play Ava realized that it wasn't about who could climb higher or run faster it was about having gun. She quickly understood this and play ground time greatly improved.
Ava showed great success in turning her friendship and play challenges in large part because of her attuned and involved adult support system. They did helpful things like reflect the problem they saw (You both want to swing but there is only one open...) instead of just saying something like "wait your turn..." which ca be frustrating.
The adults in Ava's life also facilitated peer to peer conversations, conflict resolution, and learned to expect certain challenges to arrive to that when they did they were't frustrated. Last, in school they encouraged multi-age play during recess so that the younger kids could learn from the older ones and the older kids could step up and model positive play skills.
Play is a central way that children make meaning of the world. Sit back and observe it regularly if you really want to know how your young child is doing and intervene within their play world- the results will amaze you. The developing young mind is incredible and pliable.H