Building relationships through child led play

Life can be so busy and sometimes just finding a few moments to just be with your children can seem impossible. How often do we find time to enter into our children’s worlds? As a therapist, working with children and their parents using Parent Child Attachment Play, I have seen how powerful being present in the moment with your children can be.

Even 10 minutes a day, or 20 minutes every two days spent one-to-one with a child, where you allow them to lead the play or activity that they choose, can have wonderful results within the family.

It sounds simple but it does take a lot of practice and commitment. The following techniques can prove invaluable:

Focusing: The aim is to focus completely on your child during this playtime. Show your child that you are interested and attending to her by sitting at her level and following her play. Make eye contact with your child, look at your child so that when she looks up she sees you looking at her and realises that you are interested in what she is doing. Switch off your phone and make sure there will be no disruptions during this time. If thoughts enter your head, like “what will I cook for dinner today?”, acknowledge the thought and say goodbye to it for the moment. This is your time to enter into your child’s world.

Reflecting: Really try to connect with your child’s feelings in their play. Reflect these feelings back to your child to help them feel understood, for example “You are smiling because you are happy with your picture” or reflect the feelings of the characters they are playing with (“that dinosaur seems really angry today”). It shows the child that you are interested and want to understand them. It also helps to develop emotional literacy by identifying, accepting and labeling their feelings. If an emotion is expressed and goes unnoticed the child may think that it is not acceptable and may repress it.

Containment: While the child is leading the session it is important as the parent to keep necessary boundaries. Having an agreed time-frame on the play beforehand and being consistent in keeping this will help your child to deal with the difficulty of transitioning from activities that they enjoy. You can help them through this by acknowledging how hard it is to leave this fun activity and reminding them that you will play together again tomorrow. Also within the play session you will have a few rules, for example the toys can’t be broken and no one can be hurt.

There is research to prove that using positive language rather than negative can help children to keep rules, for example rather than saying “you cannot hurt me or break the toys”, you could say “in playtime we keep ourselves and the toys safe”. Remind your child that they can choose to break the rules, the first time you will remind them of the rules, the second time you will remind them that if they choose to break the rules once more then playtime will come to an end. It is really important that you hold the rules, if the child chooses to break the rules for a third time, simply acknowledge that they have made a choice to end. You can reflect that it is hard for the child to end and remind them when playtime will come again. Be calm, gentle and firm. Consistency and predictability are so important in a child’s life and playtime is a really good time to practice these skills.

Also don’t forget to ensure the play is child lead by:

Returning responsibility to the child if they look for you to make decisions, “that’s up to you, you can decide”

Not labelling the toys unless the child does, “it can be whatever you want it to be”.

If you are asked to take on a role, use whispers, as a co-conspirator, “what should I say next?”

Not jumping in to help a child if they are struggling instead reflect: “you are really trying hard... it’s frustrating when things won’t work.”

Most importantly have fun and enjoy entering into the world of play with your child.