A dearth of play in US childhoods, including kindergartens (Miller & Almon, 2009), has been linked to increase childhood stress and impaired achievement (Sahlberg & Doyle, 2019). In fact, the best schooling system in the world—with the highest achievement scores—are Finnish schools which routinely incorporate active play throughout the day and into high school (ibid).

How Does Self-Directed Social Play Help Children Grow?

Humans are social mammals. Young social mammals’ lives are filled with social play as part of self-development and self-organizing around well-functioning social relationships (Burghardt, 2005).

Self-directed social play is play that children organize and manage themselves, including rule making.

What we know from animal studies of social mammals who have isomorphic brain structures (similar to humans) is that social play:

  • Facilitates emotion regulation development (Panksepp et al., 2003; van den Berg et al., 1999)
  • Fosters brain development (Gordon, Kollack-Walker, Akil, & Panksepp, 2002; Gordon, Burke, Akil, Watson, & Panksepp, 2003; Panksepp, 2007; van den Berg et al., 1999)
  • Has epigenetic & growth effects such as neural metabolism increase in the neocortex (BDNF and IGF) (Panksepp, 1998a, Gordon et al. 2002). Dopamine, the energizing hormone indicating positive anticipation, is secreted during play, which perhaps shapes dopamine pathways in prosocial ways
  • Influences gene expression profiles (Burgdorf, Kroes, Beinfeld, Panksepp, & Moskal, 2010)
  • One third of 1200 genes so far evaluated is modified rapidly by play behavior (Burgdorf et al., 2010).

Lack of play (in animal experiments) leads to: 

  • Difficulty regulating aggressive urges (Potegal & Einon, 1989).
  • Altered social, sexual, and conflict interactions with peers (van den Berg et al., 1999).
  • Diminished academic achievement (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009),
  • Increased aggression (Flanders & Herman, 2013).
  • Behavioral disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Panksepp, 2007)

Interestingly, children diagnosed with ADHD without a clinically relevant brain disorder may actually be play-starved or have a strong PLAY system that is undernourished (Panksepp, 2007b).

According to O. Fred Donaldson (1993), who played with children as therapy and with wild animals for fun, founder of Original Play, play promotes

  • Belonging, connection and partnership
  • Risk, acceptance, yielding and flexible response
  • A second look after the first look (categorizing); the second look involves seeing with the heart, which senses the Greater Life within others
  • Letting go of ideas, fears, judgments
  • A condition of kindness structured beyond our cultural consciousness
  • A loving relationship, allowing the individuals to open up and be visible to others (scrutable)

Social Free Play transforms aggression (Donaldson, 1993) because it:

  • Presents an alternative to aggression and violence without the use of force,
  • Provides choices of possible reactions to aggression, violence and fear without the need for revenge;
  • Creates a safe space for the transformation of physical or verbal aggression;
  • Transforms deep-rooted negative habits and patterns of behaviour into new habits based on feelings of love, belonging and safety;

Social Free Play has positive effects (Donaldson, 1993), such as:

  • Maintains self esteem for oneself as well as others;
  • Creates a foundation for the optimal conditions for learning, creativity and self-development;
  • Promotes the feeling of belonging as the best alternative for fear and competition;
  • Increases the possibility of adaptation to new environments in life’s ever changing conditions.

Play Therapy

Play can be used intentionally to heal adults and children. Play-based therapies are known to help children with fear, anxiety, aggression, autism, PTSD, ADHD and attachment disorders; when parents are involved in the play therapy, outcomes are even more successful (Reddy et al., 2005).

Attachment Play at Home

Parents and children can also adopt a routine of social play together, which helps with family relations (Cohen, 2002). Social free play is purposeless, meaning it is about having fun. But play can be purposeful in the family too.

In her book, Attachment Play: How to Solve Children’s Behavior Problems with Play, Laughter, and Connection, Aletha Solter (2013) suggests nine forms of attachment play that parents can design for children to promote connection, deal with emotional issues, or mend relational disruptions.

NONDIRECTIVE CHILD-CENTERED PLAY where the parent provides materials that promote imagination and lets the child lead the play. Even five minutes of time together in unstructured play can help the child feel more connected to the parent.

SYMBOLIC PLAY with particular props or themes can be useful for helping the child heal from trauma. The parent can also use the approach to cope with behavior issues (e.g., lack of cooperation, toilet training, lying, sibling rivalry). You can use stuffed animals to represent parent and child in a particular situation.

CONTINGENCY PLAY involves pairing a child’s action with the adult’s response (e.g., imitating a baby’s sounds). When playing piggyback (child on parent), the parent follows the child’s directions for which way to go.

NONSENSE PLAY involves topsy-turvy behavior, like saying things backwards, or putting pants on your head. Exaggerating feelings or silly responses are fun ways to redirect a reluctant child.

SEPARATION GAMES like peekaboo, chase, or hide-and-seek, depending on the age, allow the child to deal with anxieties of separation.

In POWER-REVERSAL GAMES the adult pretends to be weak, ignorant, clumsy or scared. The child gets to be the stronger player. The child can use a pillow to knock over the parent.

REGRESSION GAMES are activities where players engage in play that you would usually do with a younger child, like using baby talk or the child acting like a baby. But do remember that cuddling is good for all ages!

ACTIVITIES THAT INVOLVE BODY CONTACT include wrestling, piggyback, tag and catch, dancing in arms, wheelbarrow, piggyback riding and games where you hold hands.

COOPERATIVE GAMES include making up a story together, song games, cooperative board games, even sports games can be converted to cooperative rules.

Solter (2013) provides extensive guidance for parents, including rules for adults in attachment play:

  1. Follow the child’s lead and remain flexible.
  2. Avoid teaching or correcting the child.
  3. Avoid interrupting or analyzing the play.
  4. Follow the laughter—something is going right.
  5. Avoid teasing.
  6. Avoid tickling.
  7. Don’t try to play when your child is crying
  8. Seek professional help for major trauma.
  9. It’s okay to say you don’t want to play sometimes.

Attachment play between parent and child can benefit both parties, in all the ways mentioned above, including improving secure attachment capacities in both parent and child. Lawrence Cohen’s books also have lots of tips for parents and child play: Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children that Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence and The Art of Roughhousing.

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