Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Importance of Imaginative Play

Q. We are a very busy family and don't have a lot of down time at home. I worry about my kids being over scheduled. I remember as a kid playing in my room for hours, but my kids seem to want me to entertain them. What can I do to help facilitate imaginative play for them?

A. Today's Ask Anne question is being answered by Rod Campbell, our Pathways Professional Counselor in Oxford, Ashville, and Gadsden. He not only has three children himself, but he also works with kids on a daily basis using the power of play. Click here to see our article on What is Play Therapy?

So you’re busy taking care of some household chore when you suddenly notice that strange noises are coming from your son’s bedroom, and that the noises sound a bit like he may be crying! So you quickly run down the hall to discover him playing contentedly in the floor with 2 Hot Wheels cars. The “crying” sounds were his version of engine noises! He doesn’t notice you, and for a few minutes you watch him quietly as a whole story unfolds. You hear “I’ve got you now!” and “Bring that back or I’ll crash you!” along with other snippets of dialogue between characters you do not know. It’s unclear at first, but then you notice a pattern. There is a good guy and a bad guy, and eventually the good guy wins. You notice that when the good guy wins, your son smiles, and seems to be a bit proud of himself.

It’s easy to think this is a simple, normal occurrence. In many ways it is totally normal, but it might not be as simple as it seems at first. Imaginative play can be very powerful for a child. During free-form imaginative play your child has the opportunity to practice being anyone or anything he or she chooses. He can be an airplane, a football player, horse, parent, teacher, fish, or one thousand other things. While “trying on” these different persona he can experiment with power differences by giving or receiving orders; develop social skills by playing out conversations or by acting out and resolving conflicts; work on sharing skills by having multiple characters learn to share a single toy. The options are literally endless!

Think for a moment about the life of a small child – say a4-year-old girl. Her mother picks out her clothes. Her parents tell her when to get up, when to take a nap, when to go to bed, when to eat, what to eat, when to take a bath, etc. At church and school, teachers similarly order the rest of her day. It is only in imaginative play that she can be the teacher, the parent, the police officer, the doctor, the chef. Experimenting with these roles gives a child the opportunity to be the hero, to make a difference, to feel good about herself or himself. The smile on your son’s face when he caught the bad guy is a reminder that his self confidence has been impacted.

It is important that parents support imaginative play. Parents should be proactive to limit the time children are allowed to play video games, watch TV, or play on the computer. By requiring our children to make use of the more classic interactive toys like cars, dolls, Lego’s, action figures, dress-up clothes, play dough, puppets, stuffed animals and the like, we allow them the time they need to engage their imaginations and stick with it long enough to benefit from the experience. Parents can also ask children to describe their play without making assumptions. For instance, the dolphin your child is playing with might have been re-imagined as an airplane in the absence of the real thing. A simple “Looks like you’re having fun! Tell me what’s happening” can go a long way toward understanding how your child has imagined his world.

Also, try to avoid using too much positive reinforcement. This may sound strange, but often when your child asks if something looks or sounds good, they don’t need you to give a positive response as much as they need you to validate that as long as they like it, you do too. Let their play be their play, but join them in it. Let them call the shots, be the boss, be the director of the play. I can’t tell you how many tea parties, puppet shows, and battles I’ve taken part in with my kids over the years. The one common denominator in all the experiences has been the joy that comes to a child’s face when a parent enters the child’s world instead of requiring the child to enter theirs!

If you have a question you would like to ask, EMAIL US: askanne@abchome.org or leave a comment. We would love to answer one of your questions.
*This column is not intended to substitute for an actual session with a licensed counselor.

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