Play Techniques with Elementary School Children
There is not a child anywhere who does not engage in play. In fact, we could say that play is the primary language of children. It provides them with a unique method for communication, exploration, creativity, imagination, and self-expression. It is a complete activity that draws on all of the senses and is laden with images and emotions, allowing the imagination to stretch out beyond the constrictions of language. Play is not only the language of the child, but a primary method by which children successfully traverse the developmental path from early childhood to adolescence.
It provides children with both the means for enacting thoughts and feelings of which the child is aware but can't express, and also of expressing and resolving conflicts of which the child has no awareness. It is for children what verbalization is for adults. It is a vital and necessary activity, and the more parents understand about play, the better they will be able to promote specific play activities that will foster their child's growth.
Functions of Play
The literature on play and play therapy is extensive and generally reveals somewhere between six and twelve functions of play, either as a normal childhood activity or as a therapeutic tool for solving problems. Our list is somewhat condensed and groups the functions into five basic areas, combining some of the generally accepted categories among child psychiatrists and psychologists. These five areas are: (1) mastery of developmental tasks and conflicts; (2) transmission of culture; (3) competence building and problem-solving; (4) self-expression and creativity; and (5) attachment enhancement and relationship building.
Mastery of Developmental Tasks and Conflicts
When children reach approximately six years of age (enter the stage called latency), they begin to experience increased capacities for thinking, conceptualizing and learning. They are embarking upon a period of cognitive expansion (literally their brains develop), and in fact this is why formal education begins at this time. This presents two problems for them. First, they must have some way to put away emotional problems and conflicts so they can give most of their attention to learning. Secondly, they must deal with a growing awareness that although they are smart enough to have desires for independence and power, they really are not a position to overpower the adults in their life who are in charge of them. So they must find some way of dealing with their sense of powerlessness and of expressing their emotions, particularly aggression, so that the primary task of learning is not interrupted. Here is where the world of fantasy and play enters.
Fantasy in the form of play activities allows children to build a world of imaginary characters and stories that play out current emotional conflicts in such a way that the emotions are expressed and resolved on a subconscious or unconscious level. A perfect example is the figure of Superman. As Clark Kent, Superman is a timid and non-powerful individual who never has the solution to the problem. He is the guy everyone thinks is nice, but not the guy who gets the girl or saves the day. With just a whirl and his special brand of magic, he becomes the all-powerful superhero with superhuman strength and ability. There is no problem he can't solve, and he is adored and admired by all. He's the man as they say.
Superman and his many exploits embody the perfect latency wish, and by participating in this fantasy or making up one like it, the latency child successfully boosts himself from Clark Kent to the status of an all-powerful superhuman. This relieves him of his feelings of inadequacy and allows him to discharge his feelings of aggression away from those adults in his life who are in control of him, thus keeping those relationships intact. Better yet, fantasy play is available at all times through daydreams and play. The greater the imagination, the more elaborate and disguised the fantasies are and the greater the emotional relief and resolution of conflict.
Transmission of Culture
This one is a little less complicated. Very simply, fantasy and play activities serve as a means for teaching children about the social mores, social roles, and socially acceptable behavior that are necessary to successfully participate in and be a part of one's culture and society. Going back to the Superman stories, you'll remember that in each case strong messages were delivered that sought to outline what constitutes right from wrong, how one can be a good citizen, what defines morality, and so forth. These fantasies and stories drive home the culture's beliefs, values, and social rules, thus instilling them into the minds of the child before he moves into adolescence where he will be able to practice making his own decisions.
Competence Building and Problem-Solving
Certain types of play help children learn how to engage in goal-oriented activity and solve problems. This requires breaking problems down into tasks, ordering and prioritizing those tasks, and then carrying through until the action is complete and the goal reached. Implied in this process is the delay of gratification and control of impulses, future planning, and anticipation. These are the primary adult skills needed to work in our Western culture. Play activities that promote these skills are collections (such as baseball cards, dolls, or model cars), building and construction (building trains or model airplanes), and any sort of fantasy play that requires organizational skills and repetition such as occupational play (playing school, store, doctor, etc.). This last group has the added benefit of teaching social roles and extending oneself into the adult world of work.
Self-Expression and Creativity
Play allows children to experiment with new options without any fear of negative consequences, censorship, or interference. It enhances flexibility and originality in thinking, and expands the capacity for imagination, which ultimately can be directed towards innovative problem solving and creative solutions. Children who have a full fantasy life and a good imagination are more creative as adults.
Attachment Enhancement and Relationship Building
Although many children spend some time in solitary play, most play is conducted with others, especially parents or other children. Play is one of the first ways that parents interact with young infants resulting in positive emotional attachment and bonding. Play usually begins in the early years as a very physical process involving a lot of touching and smiling such as patty cake, playing piggyback, or just floor play. As the child gets older, pretend play begins to emerge in which imaginary scenarios are created to express emotions or resolve conflicts. At an even later stage, play becomes somewhat more cerebral through the use of games such as chess or scrabble. In all cases, the play is based on a relationship between the players, and involves group cooperation and involvement. Play provides a perfect opportunity for developing social skills and empathy.
A discussion of play techniques really refers to two separate aspects of play. The first of these is how to play which includes paying attention to the setting, time restrictions, roles for both parent and child, and methods for enhancing fantasy play and pretending. The second aspect is more concerned with the materials to be used including types of toys that are age appropriate and that target the developmental stage in question, andother raw materials that can aid in fantasy formation.
How to Play
Let's start with the basic strategy. Pick a time (every day, once a week, or even spontaneously) during which you can set aside everything else and attend to the play session. It doesn't have to be a long time - 30 to 45 minutes is fine, but longer if you like. Let yourself relax into the mindset that you are going to act childish, silly, and very flexibly. Next let your child know that for the next 45 minutes (or whatever time is allotted), they will be in charge. Use the words, "You are the boss and I have to do what you say." The only rules are that no one can hurt anyone else, and property cannot be destroyed. Otherwise, the activities are of the child's choice. If your child seems to have difficulty getting started, you can initiate the play. Depending on what you already know your child likes to do, you can begin with a favorite activity. If it is playing with dolls, then pick up the dolls and say something like, "Let's pretend the dolls are going ......" This way, you engage your child in embellishing the story until they are able to do it on their own. If your child catches on easily, then let her take the lead and you just follow along, playing your part as instructed. Once kids really see they get to have the power in the play session, they will take over.
Now, if your child is interested in playing something where each of you gets to be a character, that can be extremely fun and creative. It might be that you play school and she decides to be the teacher and you are the student. You might begin to misbehave in school and then let her decide what to do with you. Or you might be a real good student, but as the teacher she is angry and harsh. The idea is that the child gets to play different roles and act out the feelings and emotions that go along with them, thereby releasing her own conflicts.
Remember that aggression is a very normal part of childhood, but must be safely released. Play is an enormously valuable method for the release of aggression. The trick is to allow it in the play session, and then when you are all finished remind your child that playtime is over and the usual rules apply. Most children can easily move back and forth between the play session and normal roles with their accompanying rules. What you will find over time is that your child will look forward to the play sessions with such positive anticipation, that she will behave extremely well otherwise. She will begin to save her need to release negative emotions for the play session where it can be done effectively and safely.
There are all kinds of toys, some of which are fairly nondescript and generic such as blocks, and some which are very specific such as Barbie dolls. The younger the child, the more generic toys should be. Younger children use toys primarily to elicit an emotional response or release. They like playdoh, water, sand, big paper and paints, etc. The older the child, the more intricate the toys. Nine and ten-year-olds like games, and the more competitive the better. They also can become very involved in collections, spending hours organizing and prioritizing the prized possession. Gary Landreth (from Play Therapy: The Art of Relationship, 1991) groups toys into three broad categories. We add one more to the list as explained below.
#1 Real-life Toys
These are family figures such as a doll family, doll house, puppets, or other figures that can represent family constellations. Using these toys in pretend fantasy play, children can act out feelings and conflicts around real life situations without directly experiencing them. Other real-life toys allow children to play without revealing feelings until they are ready. These are things like cars, trucks, and boats. A very popular toy in this category is a cash register. Kids get a strong sense of control from using the cash register while at the same time remaining noncommittal about more potent emotional issues. When they are ready, they will move toward more expressive toys.
#2 Acting-Out/Aggressive-Release Toys
These are toys that allow the expression of pent-up hostility, anger, or frustration. A punching bag, toy soldiers, play dinosaurs, alligators, plastic snakes, or even just clay or playdoh provide the medium for aggressive expression. Using pretend fantasy play, children might have the snakes bite rabbits, or have an alligator puppet chase a young play kitten around the room. Raw materials that might also work would include a play hammer and nails that can be driven into a piece of wood. This activity both focuses attention and releases aggression. Some parents are afraid of allowing this kind of ventilation, however, allowing it within the course of play is actually quite healthy. You can encourage the play by simply narrating out loud what you see going on, or participating as instructed. Kids who engage in this type of aggressive play exclusively usually are dealing with some unresolved conflict. In this case, play therapy is in order and you would want to consult a qualified therapist to assist.
#3 Creative Expression and Emotional Release Toys
These are the more unstructured type of toys such as blocks, paints, legos, sand, water, clay, or any material that allows the child to engage in free expression. Younger children not only enjoy being creative with these types of toys, but they often will build and create things only to knock them down or destroy them and start over again. This is a healthy activity known as practicing. You can participate by helping or simply supplying the sound effects.
Games are a special group of toys as they enhance particular cognitive skills such as problem solving, but also social skills and ego strengths such as dealing with loss. Games range from the very simple (Candyland) to the very skilled (Chess). Older children are more interested in games, and in fact, games are still popular among adults.
Remember: The more your child has the chance to form fantasies through play, the more well-adjusted and easy to manage he or she will be.