In a Time of Crisis, Play Is the Work of the Child

Here are some play ideas to employ with your kiddos while we’re all homebound.

Posted Apr 05, 2020

Guest contribution to Progress Notes by Karla Edwards, M.Ed., CCLS.

Play is critical to development. Yet, when we get stressed or scared as adults, play may be the last thing we consider engaging in with our kids. Leaving our children to figure it all out for themselves is a potential recipe for distraught emotions, misguided behavior, as well as family conflict, in the end. Author and parenting expert, L.R. Knost, wisely instructed, “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”

Not sure where to begin? Here are some play ideas to employ while we’re all homebound.

Jessica Rockowitz/Unsplash
Source: Jessica Rockowitz/Unsplash

Play dress up. During imaginative play, when a child can process what they have been experiencing by playing it out, they can have a sense of control and self-mastery during a time when both are especially needed.

Random dance parties. Pump up the music for five or so minutes, and run around like crazy with your kiddos, polishing off some of your best dance moves. My daughters Addison and Annesley really like for me to video parts of our spontaneous dance parties so we can look back and giggle at our funny moves. This literally gets our blood moving and is a short but effective blast of mood-lifting energy.

Role-play with stuffed animals or toy figures. This is a great temperature check with your preschool and early elementary age children. How are they feeling about all that is going on? They may not tell you outright, but they may engage in a full description of their thoughts and feelings if a beloved toy begins speaking to them (hint: mom, dad, you speak through the toy!). When doing this, make sure to ask some questions, but let your child guide the interaction. If they want to talk about COVID-19, great; if they don't, no need. If they do bring it up, use role-play to find out if they have any misconceptions about the virus. You can clear these up immediately.

Another wonderful option here: plastic dolls can model good hand hygiene. Maybe they don't want to hear it from you, but if their favorite doll is showing them how to wash their hands or they are showing their doll or toy how to wash their hands, it can be a game-changer.

Giving choices for what to play is another wonderful thing to do with our kids. We all love choices, especially when we are experiencing a lack of control. The number one rule of choice-giving: before you present them, make sure each option is something you would be OK with. “Do you want to have lunch today inside or outside?” “Do you want to do sidewalk chalk or bubbles?”

Board games and multiple player video games are another great way to connect through play with your children. You may have an opportunity to work together. Or, maybe one person gets to win, and you can all celebrate the winner. This sort of activity provides a sense of control as well as opportunities to practice following the rules.

Arts and crafts. This does not have to be fancy. Grab a piece of paper and do a shared drawing. You draw a circle. What will they draw next? Their choice. Go back and forth until you have created a masterpiece.

Surprisingly, one of the most favored toys of children everywhere can be cardboard boxes. Give your child total creative freedom to turn a cardboard box into whatever they desire.

As a certified child life specialist, I was deployed by Child Life Disaster Relief in 2017 to help kids in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, mostly through play. Time and time again, I found that children would choose cardboard boxes over other toys to create and process their experiences from the hurricane. In one shelter, I was instructed by a child to “row the boat!” while he huddled inside a cardboard box.

Me: “Where are we?”

Child: “The floods!”

Me: “Where are we going?”

Child: “To here” (pointing to the shelter we were staying in).

Me: “How long will it take us?”

Child: “55 hours, are you hungry? Do you like Cheez-Its?”

 Children's Disaster Services, used with permission
Karla Edwards, CCLS, Child Life Disaster Relief, Hurricane Harvey.
Source: Children's Disaster Services, used with permission

This wasn’t the kind of work I could do to or even for the child. It was his work, and I was privileged to join him in it. The Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, famously taught, “Play is the work of the child.” In the midst of crisis, from the safety of our play area, this child was reenacting his experience. What a privilege for me to be a part of his process of healing through play! Here now, in the midst of crisis, don’t miss opportunities to help your child do the same.

Karla Edwards
Source: Karla Edwards

Karla Edwards, M.Ed., is a certified child life specialist (CCLS), Child Life Disaster Relief volunteer, an elementary school intervention specialist, as well as wife of Blake Edwards, author of Psychology Today's Progress Notes blog.

This post originally appeared in the Wenatchee World.