Play as a powerful collaborative learning tool
Play is a way to help children and parents be receptive to growth and learning across a range of parenting challenges/opportunities. In many cases, play can give you the outcome you are seeking with the full cooperation of your child. It’s just a question of trusting your child to know what is expected (they usually do) and move past the explaining phase to the collaborating phase.
For example, let’s look at the challenges of teaching a child to be courteous to others. Let’s say Grandmother lives far far away and doesn’t visit often. Now Grandma is staying for a few days, and let’s say your sweet wonderful five year old is being rude. (Shocking, I know.) Let’s say he or she is not acknowledging Grandma when she speaks, or is constantly interrupting Grandma like she’s not in the room, or maybe that age old chestnut, refusing to give grandma that really important first hug.
There are many reasons why children don’t toe the courtesy line. (Let’s set aside for a moment the relative values of toeing the courtesy line…) Perhaps your child doesn’t understand the pressure to be sweet to someone she doesn’t know very well (a sure fire recipe to act up). In response, you can bring the hammer down and start doling out time-outs and ordering lots of thank yous and mandatory cheek kisses and what not. But the result is you end up being a cop, the child ends up being policed, and Grandma is pretty much bored with both of you.
This would be a classic example of a control-oriented response being used in a non-control critical situation.
Control-oriented responses makes sense when crossing a busy street (a life and death situation), but they make a lot less sense when you’re trying to teach your child to be “nice.” Remember the old adage about how spanking a child in order to teach them not to hit? Well, teaching a child to develop nuanced social skills exclusively via punishments is a little counter intuitive as well. A child can be punished into being courteous. But the joy of interacting with others will be long gone. You need other ways to help them learn people skills. You need play.
A Play Focused Solution
Play is often described as child-like, but I prefer to think of it as what happens when humans interact without fear of being corrected. In improv its called the “yes and” response. Its about creating a space where children and parents are free to express and experiment. Really free.
So, back to the case of Grandma. What if the three of you become actors in a small theater piece? And each of you gets a chance to play the other? Your child, now playing the role of Grandma, hands an imaginary gift to Grandma, who is now playing the role of your child. Grandma, in a turn of fine theatrical acting, takes the gift and stomps off with nary a “thanks.”
You’ll be surprised how quickly your five year old (now playing the role of Grandma) will explain to her EXACTLY why that is rude. Meanwhile, Grandma gets to cut loose and be naughty, and you step gingerly out from in between the two of them (a place you never wanted to be in the first place) and see just how much your child DOES know about social etiquette. Any lesson can be explored in this context. You can play the child next and your child can play Grandma. Grandma can play you and so on. When I play the parent role in these games, I make it big and overblown. We all laugh at me and my caricature of myself as a parent. When I play the child, I’m just terrible. It’s quite liberating.
When we do this kind of theater play at my house, my son will, at some point, want to play his own “child role”. We encourage him to act it out in both the “good” behavior way and the “bad” behavior way. In doing so, he gets a different response from the other actors in the play and he can see both outcomes. Then we switch and I act his role out in the good and bad ways and he, playing the parent, gets to correct me. This is heavy stuff, because my son is in my shoes for a few moments.
The quiet miracle of these moments are that a child, while playing himself as a character, gets to select the emotions for his character to exhibit. To become aware that he can select his emotional response in such a moment, is a hugely important step to taking responsibility for his or her responses in life. Five year olds can learn this. I know. I’ve seen it. (For that matter, grown ups can learn it, too…)
There are other benefits to the child. Returning to the child in our example above, he or she gets to try out being nice to Grandma in a context which it isn’t “real.” (Remember, he’s playing himself as a character at this moment.) If there is some resistance in him to acknowledging Grandma, he can try it out and see how it feels, see what results are created. Maybe he doesn’t acknowledge her totally in this context, but incrementally. But it is the incremental process that allows kids a way into a new behavior. What also happens is a reflection tool is created. These learning moments of play can be referred back to and talked about later. And because you and your child are remembering a game, not a lecture on manners, both of you are much more receptive to the lessons learned there.
Permission to Reveal Ourselves
AND there is yet another bonus. I have seen myself or my son later have a fussy response, acting out what could be called a bad mood. But if it is similar to what my son or I did while “playing ourselves”, one of us can reference that and the other will sometimes break character and lighten up. I’ve even used the referencing tool to break my own bad mood and model for my young son what it looks like when someone chooses to shift their own state of mind. The play comes back as an empowering tool whereby we are given permission to reveal ourselves in a more human and responsive way.
Play creates a relational and collaborative space within which any issue can be explored. And a relational space based on play has enough room in it for multiple outcomes, identities and approaches to be explored by everyone. It creates a learning experience very different from when you simply explain to your child how to behave. Often, both parties discover things about themselves and make the next interaction around the issue easier and more positive.
But the ultimate miracle of play is that it shifts focus from the issue at hand. If my son is not putting on this shoes, I can bear down on him to do so. I can count to five in that threatening way. I can put him in a time out. I can do a number of things to force him to put on his shoes. But that puts the shoes front and center in a way that suggests a million more battles to come as the day progresses. If I choose instead to say, “Let’s play the animal guessing game while you put on your shoes,” the whole dynamic can shift.
My son might say, “Okay, I have my animal for you to guess.”
At which point, I coyly remind him, “Oh, we can’t start playing until you start putting on your shoes.”
You get the picture. And even if the shoes still take some time to put on, you, the parent, are not standing there watching your son SLOWLY PUT ON HIS SHOES. A watched pot never boils, right? So use play to shift the energy. Now the game is a part of the focus. Now there’s a way to leverage good will and cooperation.
For the record, we often give ourselves permission to play with children. We can allow ourselves permission to play with our co-workers, our friends and our life partners, as well. The stories above can just as easily be about parents using play with each other to explore an issue that is creating stress for them. What often comes out of play for me is how much respect it creates in me for others. In this kind of acting game, the moment we play the other person, we step into their shoes. It teaches me respect for the other side of any story and it always reminds me that I can REALLY REALLY benefit from loosening up, laughing more at myself, and living more in the moment.