By Dr. Amanda Zelechoski, co-founder of Pandemic Parenting
The late renowned psychologist, Jean Piaget, and beloved TV host, Mr. Fred Rogers, were big proponents of the idea that “play is the work of childhood.” Sometimes, as parents, we forget that play is not just an activity kids do to pass the time. Play is actually a critical component of a child’s development and is linked to specific aspects of development, including problem-solving, creativity, cognitive skills, socialization, and language.
Play is especially important right now, as we continue to navigate the added stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. When children are in the midst of a crisis or have experienced trauma, their capacity for play and creativity can shut down. As their cognitive and emotional resources necessarily shift into survival mode, their natural curiosity and desire to explore their world takes a back seat. The constant fluctuation of the last year has meant increased stress and unpredictability for us and our children, which is precisely why it’s so important we create time and space for all of us to immerse in play.
1. Let Them Make a Mess
One of the mental images that will stay with me beyond 2020 is of my family room taken over by forts in various stages of construction – sheets and blankets everywhere, upside down chairs, and chip clips holding corners together by a thread. During the seemingly endless stretches of lockdowns and quarantines, my three young sons have been constantly building forts. As much as the mess and chaos disrupted my own sense of order and peace, I surrendered to their need to be creative and free.
From the moment children become mobile and increasingly independent, their worlds become full of restrictions: “Don’t do that.” “Be careful.” “Don’t touch.” The circumstances of 2020 have meant even more rules about what they are/are not allowed to touch, limits on sharing and playing with others, and the importance of cleanliness and wearing their masks. Play, especially in the safety of your home, is one of the few ways they can let loose – make a mess, mix the Play-Doh colors (the horror), spread the Legos or tiny Barbie shoes all over the floor (I know, I know), or ransack your closet to play dress-up (breathe, mama). Yes, there is disarray and clean-up afterward, but giving your kids an unrestricted opportunity to release and create is worth it (except, of course, when you step on a Lego at 3 a.m.).
2. Let Them Be in Charge
When our schools, communities, and towns shut down, our kids didn’t have a say in what was happening to them. Children thrive when they have structure and predictability in their daily lives and that quickly went out the door as abruptly as masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing entered our lives. So, it’s critical that we find ways to give our kids back some control where we can, and play is one of the easiest and most effective ways to do so.
One of my favorite skills to teach parents is called “child-directed interaction” (CDI), which is a central component of Dr. Sheila Eyberg’s Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) intervention. During CDI, the parent’s goal is to simply follow the child’s lead and allow the child to direct the parent in terms of what and how they will play. If my child wants me to help him build a fort, I don’t interject my ideas about how we should be constructing it to make it stronger or better. I simply follow his lead and do what he tells me to do. If I am playing dolls with my niece, I let her tell me which role I will play and how the dolls will interact (even If I’m always stuck playing the baby).
Sounds simple enough, right? Turns out, this is really hard to do, even for just five minutes (which is often the recommended amount of time to practice this daily with each of your children). I thought I was a patient person until I let my 4-year-old direct me in meticulously lining up his toy cars in a pattern that only made sense to him.
As parents, we are used to being in charge and teaching our kids the “way” to do things. But play is one of the few chances children get to be truly in charge of their worlds. So, I encourage you to resist the urge to guide the play and, instead, practice letting them be in charge, even if just for a few minutes a day.
3. Let Yourself Immerse in Play, Too
The older I get, the farther I feel from that carefree, creative, and fearless child I once was. I think she’s still in there, but the endless responsibilities of “adulting” and the worry and anxiety that comes with pandemic parenting has put her in a really long time-out. Engaging in play is an opportunity to tap back into the light-hearted and joyful parts of us, to the absolute delight of our children.
Though they might not acknowledge it, kids don’t just want new toys and games. They want grown-ups who care about them to play them with. Putting aside your to-do list for a bit and letting yourself be swallowed up in your child’s world is a gift to you and to them. How many times have you wondered what goes on in your child’s mind? What they’re thinking about? Worried about? What makes them happy? Immersing in their play is a glimpse into your child’s imagination and psyche. So, get out of your own way and let yourself play – truly play – without distraction or inhibition.
And, if you don’t remember how to play, let your child show you. They’re experts at it, after all.
For toy ideas that promote family play and build imagination, check out Zulily’s Top 2020 Hottest Christmas & Holiday Toys
Amanda Zelechoski, J.D., Ph.D.
Dr. Amanda Zelechoski is a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist and attorney, specializing in trauma. She is board certified in Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology and has worked clinically with adults, children, and families. As an Associate Professor of Psychology at Valparaiso University, she directs the Psychology, Law, and Trauma Lab, where she conducts research on the impact of childhood trauma. In addition, Dr. Zelechoski provides training and consultation to numerous mental health, legal, educational, and child welfare agencies. More importantly, she is a wife and mom of three young children, mostly just trying to make sure her kids have clothes on when they bust into her virtual meetings.