The Language of Play

Among young children, play is not only a form of entertainment, but a source of expression for feelings and thoughts, a mode of learning, and an important aspect of healthy development. It offers an avenue for you to effectively communicate with your pre-verbal and newly verbal children, as well as building your relationship bonds.

When it comes to play, the most important thing to remember is that You are your child’s favorite toy! Communicating through play does not need to involve elaborate or high-tech toys – the best play is simple, natural, and relationship-focused. For instance, games like patty cake and peek-a-boo do not require any materials, and emphasize eye contact and physical touch, which are important communication tools for building a sense of trust and safety with your child. As your child gets older, similar games will be important in reinforcing that trusting bond. An always-popular choice among the clients in my psychology practice is “Cotton Ball Hockey”: Sit across from your child at a small table, with a cotton ball between you. Each of you will use a straw to blow at the cotton ball and try to get it across the table, to make a goal. Another popular choice is “Fortune Telling”: Have your child sit in your lap, and take turns reading each other’s fortunes by looking at one another’s palms and tracing the lines with your fingers.

As your child grows, notice how his or her play evolves. Pay attention to the things your child is curious about or attempting to figure out, and encourage problem-solving through trial-and-error. Do not just solve the problem for your child; this sends the message that she is not competent enough to resolve the issue. Instead, work collaboratively through role-modeling and experimental attempts to figure out what works best. This will empower your child to feel confident and competent in facing new challenges. Provide the support your child needs in working towards learning or reaching a goal; for example, if he or she needs you to offer physical support in climbing up a jungle gym, or your assistance opening the lid of an interesting object.

It is also important to focus on creativity in play. Set aside adult logic and rules during periods of play with your child – allow him to make up new rules to a game, make a cow fly and a car swim, and decide that a family lives on Mars. Do not require that all coloring is in the lines, or that pictures of houses look proportionate. When your child uses his imagination, he is openly sharing an important and genuine part of his personality with you. By encouraging this behavior, laughing along, and succumbing to the silliness of illogical storylines, you are communicating respect and appreciation for your child. In turn, he is receiving the message that his ideas are valuable and humor is important. There is a time and a place for rules and structure and “You should do it this way…” or “This is how it works…,” but try to make these things minimal during playtime, aside from safety precautions. Let your child take the lead.

In addition to encouraging creativity, be aware of your child’s emotional state during play and validate it through reflection. While a young child may not be able to say that he felt angry when a peer took his seat at school, his play might be aggressive, such as two dolls hitting one another or calling each other names. Instead of immediately commanding that such aggressive play stop, take a moment to step back and consider whether safety is truly a concern. If not, allow your child to express his emotions through the play. Then, identify the emotions through words he can begin to apply in future situations and offer ideas for alternative ways of resolving the issue. For example, say something like, “Wow, those two dolls seem really mad at each other, because they want to fight and hurt one another. I wonder if they could tell each other how mad they feel by using words instead of fists.” You can also role model appropriate ways of expressing anger and using gentle touching instead of aggressive touching with your own dolls as you sit next to your child. When it comes to emotions in your child’s play, the best thing you can do is reflect, identify, and label them!

Play offers unique insight into your child’s mind, and the more time you spend playing WITH him or her (not FOR him or her by showing how, instead of allowing your child to direct the play), the more in tune you will be to subtle changes in development and growth. You’ll become adept at identifying changes in mood, triggers for tantrums or rough days, and your child’s general perceptions about his or her daily experiences. Allow yourself the freedom of taking off your adult hat, and getting down on the floor to submerge yourself in a world of wonder through the eyes of your child!


Next week’s blog: TALKING WITH YOUR TEEN

This blog was adapted from the work of Zero To Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers.

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.