The Power of Practice through Play
- Improve your time-outs, by using action figures and dolls to play out different situations. For example, show what you would want your child to do during time-out and after time-out.
- Play emotional charades by acting or drawing out different emotions and having the others guess how you’re feeling.
- Put on a puppet show! Puppets are a fantastic way for kids to express themselves. Write up a script with your child and act it out for the whole family.
- Make a movie together! Record a movie showing what your day should go like vs. what could happen to alter your plans. Focusing on how to handle those outside forces will make it easier for children to remember how to respond to outside influences.
Children are used to adults telling them what to do. In fact, one could say kids are experts at hearing directions, commands, and corrections. But how many times do we find ourselves repeating the same words over and over again and still, it’s as if we are talking to a wall.
Hearing and doing, are two entirely different things, especially for kids. In certain ways, kid brains work differently than those of adults. Depending upon their age and developmental level, what we say may not have the degree of impact upon their actual behaviors that we would hope or need – this is especially true in moments of strong emotions. The reality is that automatic responses take over in times of big emotion.
“Depending upon their age and developmental level, what we say may not have the degree of impact upon their actual behaviors that we would hope…”
So how do we communicate effectively without kids tuning us out, disregarding us, or quickly forgetting what we just said? Many of us are busy, over-scheduled, and stressed families. We know spending time with our kids is valuable but are guilt ridden because we understand the challenge of carving out the time to do that. However, with a little planning, focus, and intentional use of our time together, we can teach, shape, and build a wide array of valuable tools, strategies, skills, and behaviors while reconnecting with our kids through play. Not only is play a unique stomping ground for developing skills, it is also an effective way to impact their automatic responses later when those more challenging emotional or behavioral moments happen – all that with the bonus of having fun, giving children our time, and strengthening our relationships. Win-Win-Win.
Here are five examples of specific ways you can use play to build healthy social-emotional regulation skills:
- Bubbles and pinwheels. Learn how to strengthen the mind-body connection and interrupt the stress-response cycle by shaping the ability to notice, slow down, and deepen one’s breath. Bubbles get bigger by slowing down the breath, which requires a slow, deep inhale prior to blowing out a long, slow exhale to get the big bubbles. Or challenge kids to a game with pinwheels to see who can make their pinwheel spin the slowest and the longest. Show how to do this with a slow, deep inhale followed by a long, slow exhale with a fairly closed mouth to focus that air on the pinwheel.
- Improve time-outs. Playfully practice what you expect them to do during and after a time-out through play, with their action figures, dolls, or stuffed animals. Act out a few time-outs that go well, and a few time-outs that do not go well. Have fun with it, but be clear on what exactly should happen for time-out to end and for life to go back to normal. Remember to add in some kind of act of loving compassion after time-out is over.
- Be prosocial with puppets. Build better prosocial behaviors like sharing, taking turns, or showing empathy with friends through a puppet show. Decide with your child ahead of time what value or moral you wish to focus on during the puppet show, and make that your theme. But, don’t forget to get silly, have fun, follow their lead, and reflect on what you see and hear as you can. Try to have a few phrases you can repeat through your puppets to help them develop similar words to use later when their thinking parts of their brain are not working at their best.
- Charades with a twist. Focus upon acting or drawing out different emotions within various scenarios and see who can guess correctly what the situation and emotions involved might be.
- Make a movie together. Kids love to make and watch videos of themselves. Together, write a short script that focuses upon a challenging time of the day for your family, to show what happens when everything goes as expected vs. when things go wrong or do not go as planned. Remember to focus upon one or two primary emotional or behavioral regulation skills or strategies you want them to remember, and let the rest be more about routine tasks. Have a family movie-night to debut the video and celebrate the success of finishing the project.
Let’s lean on what we know from years of research, what feels natural to our kids, what feels fun to all involved: use play to facilitate the developmental process of social-emotional skills such as self-regulation of emotions and behaviors. You and your kids will have more fun, will feel more connected, and will perhaps notice more success as skills automatically surface as part of their daily reality. Now get out there and play – doctor’s orders!