Mama, can you play with me?

When I was in undergraduate psychology, I found an ad for an Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) therapist for young children and infants with autism. A criteria was a desire to play and be enthusiastic with children. As a naive university student desperately searching for paid work experience, I thought I had snagged a gold ticket. Sure, I could almost pass as an expert at playing! I must have racked up hours of experience just playing as a kid!??! I got this.

Throughout the years in different therapist roles and treatment approaches, I’ve appreciated different aspects about the value and challenges of play. Those early years as an ABA Therapist, then as Parent Child Interaction therapist (PCIT), playing with children during therapy sessions, observing mums and dads play and playing with my own children.

1. Play with your child is important but is not always fun. When you are attempting stealth manoeuvres of juggling multiple demands of housework, infant on one hip, and recovering from yet another LEGO inflicted mine trap injury... Invitations from your toddler to pretend play “tea party” (again!??) doesn’t seem so appealing. It’s a lot messier than I remember as a kid, now being at the tail end of the cleaning... play doh off the couch, play doh on clothes, play doh in my hair. Looking for even small moments of enjoyment with your child through the mess, is a start.

2. It is one of the best strategies for connecting with children, teens and adults. Children usually don’t have the sophisticated vocabulary sometimes expected from talking therapy. For those who have experienced trauma, it also feels safer to re enact or express tough experience through play therapy. Some adults have benefited from Sand play when used as an intervention for building trust and connection in therapy.

3. There is a skill in playing and it can come from experience. I have learnt to play skill fully using PCIT tools by describing what I see, praising effectively and intentionally, using imitation to engage and reflecting children’s speech to help them develop language. We can nurture children’s development by improving how we play with them.

4. Play is a booster in building that secure attachment between parents and children. It is effective when used as a foundation for repair and healing from complex traumas in childhood. Some children and adults have not had much experience of play in their childhood. When children experience regular, consistent, positive and safe experiences of play, they began to rebuild trust. This can be achieved from even 5-10 minutes of play each day.