How to Build Awareness and Acknowledgement of Gratitude Through Play
Antonia, better known as Tonina, has been a practicing occupational therapist for over 20 years, specializing in Pediatrics. In her career’s journey, she has founded/directed a multidisciplinary rehab clinic and a private school for students with special needs (in Orlando, FL) and has been part of the rehab medicine management team at a top rated hospital in Manhattan. Tonina continues to work with children and families while building educational programming for parents and professionals. Founding MPowerMe and mpowermetoys.com culminates her clinical experiences and her love for discovering, sharing, and collaborating with her community to foster growth and creativity in children of all ages and skill levels. She strives to share about the use of toys, games, gadgets, literature, and sensory accessories to build children’s social skills, physical performance, ability to respond adaptively to their environment, and foster their continued journey as life-long learners.
Gratitude (a grateful mindset) is a positive mental state, in this case an emotion. It is different from other emotions related to caring for others such as compassion, sympathy, and empathy because gratitude is fostered and learned.
Research shows that there are four integral components to developing gratitude. They can be nurtured to maximize its benefits in our daily lives. Gratitude evolves through conscious, active encouragement of these four fundamental factors:
Through infancy and early childhood, children learn the foundational skills that they will need to attribute wants, aspirations, beliefs, intent, and emotions to themselves and others. They do this by watching people, paying attention to their words, gestures, and reactions, and then they imitate them. Developmentally, toddlers are naturally egocentric. It is between the ages of 4 and 5 that children begin to think about others’ thoughts and feelings, and these abilities continue to develop and to be honed through adolescence and into adulthood.
Creating a habit of noticing things, people, activities, and environments for which we are grateful is an awareness skill that can be seeded in toddlers and nurtured in adolescents. Use daily routines, modeling, and intentional conversations to grow that seed. Highlight what you are grateful for while using or experiencing that “thing,” activity, or person; or make comments that can raise your child’s awareness about something for which they could be grateful. For example, a father could comment: “Wow, mommy brought you such a cool cup! It keeps your drink cold or warm. Do you like being able to keep your coco warm in your new cup?”
Encourage thinking about feelings of gratitude through questions like, “Why did mommy get you that cup to keep your drink warm? Oh, to help keep you warm. We should thank mommy for keeping us warm while we play outside!” When your child receives a present, you can make a statement and follow-up question, like, “Wow, that is your favorite! What do you think your brother is showing you when he made that for you?”
Follow-up with conversation, comments, and/or questions aimed to highlight how gratitude feels. For example, “Your giggles and smiles tell me that your brother’s gift made you happy. Am I right? You must really appreciate that he made those for you. That is called being grateful.,” or ask, “Where do you feel gratitude in your body?” You can also help a child imagine what feelings the gift-giver might have had when preparing it for them, or asking, “Can you tell when someone else feels gratitude? What did their face and body do when you thought they were grateful?”
Lastly, act on gratitude. Foster in your children the motivation and ability to do something that conveys gratitude in a meaningful way. When they are young, modeling has a significant impact. Watching what you do and hearing what you say is key. Collaborating on ideas for the best way to express gratitude is both a bonding and teaching moment for you and your child. It also provides an opportunity to learn more about your child’s awareness, thoughts, and creativity.
Through active and crafty play activities, we can foster each component at home, in school, during play dates, and in play centers.
- Modify familiar active games like Tag, Duck-Duck-Goose, and Hot Potato to be a conscious opportunity to express gratitude, appreciation, and/or give a compliment. For example, when playing tag, the person who is “it” runs to tag someone, when they do, they thank that person for something specific. Another scenario for tag - each person playing, writes/draws a thank you note for each of their family members. These are pinned to their shirt (the notes should be color coded to each player or named) – the tagger gets to pull their note and reads it.
- Thankful Balloon Volleyball: Family members write or draw thank you notes, appreciation statements, or compliments for each other on paper strips. Roll those up and insert them into a balloon. Blow it up, tie it off, and write the recipient’s name on the balloon. Play balloon volleyball and decide how long each set will be until the identified person can pop the balloon and read their message. Repeat until all family members have gotten one note. For example, “Thank you for bringing me to the birthday party, I had a lot of fun.” Younger children can dictate their message and draw an accompanying picture.
- Gratitude Nature Trail: Take a weekly walk and encourage noticing, thinking, and feeling gratitude for our natural environment.
- Dice Rolling Game: Attribute each number rolled to a fun action and a person to thank, compliment, do something nice for, provide words of encouragement to, etc.
- Gratitude Jenga: Place a color identifier on certain blocks. When a player uses them, they thank one of the other players for something specific.
- Appreciation Board: Place a cork or dry-erase board on each family member’s bedroom door. Encourage everyone in the family to add a positive message, words of encouragement, or thank you note on the board twice per week. Everybody gets to enjoy the messages and pictures.
- Grateful Paper Chain Decoration: Create paper chain art by having each member of the family or group write down something or someone they are grateful for, at least weekly, and add the “link” to the chain. Adorn doors or hallways with it. Through the year, these can be updated with seasonal or holiday colors. Color coding the strips of paper used to represent people, places, or things helps children be specific and express what they are grateful for on a routine basis. The chain is a continuous visual reminder of their bounty.