Special playtimes

Hi, I'm Jan Vance and have been a play therapist at The Children's Trust since 2004.

During that time I have provided play therapy to support children during their residential placements for acquired brain injury rehabilitation.

In this blog, I talk about how making time for special play can benefit your child and you.

If there is one sure way to make a child feel especially valued, safe and secure, then it is through ‘special playtimes’ with them.

But just what is it that makes a play time ‘special’? First, try to allocate a time each day for a ‘special playtime’ with your child, ideally for 30 minutes.

During this time, you should not allow yourself to be interrupted by things (like loading the washing machine or texting your friends!).

If your child is able to understand, explain that this time is for them, and tell them how long you will be able to play with them.

Try to set up a play space for yourselves with toys your child enjoys but the most important point of all is that you should always follow your child’s lead during this playtime.

Let them choose what they want to do and direction it’s going in, but try respond to their play.

Watch what they’re doing, and be interested in the details of how they’re choosing to play, while maintaining just a few rules to keep yourself, your child and the toys safe.

Playing together in this way is one of the most effective ways to help a child to learn to regulate their emotions and develop their understanding and skills.

If they get over-excited, you can help them by calming their play through your own play responses. Think about your body language and tone of voice.

If they are being more cautious, you can gradually ‘energise’ the play, building in more stimulation to excite their curiosity and willingness to explore new ideas.

Where possible, the toys available for special playtimes should encourage sensory enjoyment, creativity and imagination.

You may well have experienced the common scenario of the toddler more interested in playing with the box the toy came in than the toy itself!

The aim is for the child not to feel they are following what you want them to do (and showing you skills you want them to show you), but that you simply enjoying being their play partner, with them in the driving seat.

The hope is that they will get a surge of self esteem, and feel valued for the ‘fascinating little person that they are’ – not because they have built a tower of bricks to your specification, directions and corrections!

This play time is not about you teaching them direct skills – there are plenty of other times for that.

True playfulness between a parent and a child is not an ‘end product’, but a rewarding and enriching process for both of you.

The good news is that it can help to create a powerful sense of bonding and attachment between you. The bad news is that you cannot fake your enjoyment if you’re not having fun.

A child will sense this above all else.

Try not to stop the play suddenly, and instead try to prepare the child for the end of playtime.

You can try to reduce the ‘pace of play’ with a baby or, for an older child, set a kitchen timer to go off three minutes before you have to end.

Always offer reassurance that there will be another playtime soon.

Try to see this special playtime as something that’s for you too – you will be amazed at how much fun it can be!

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