Playing out our Problems

This is a Totally Broke Tuesday post by Audrey Simmons. You can read about the series here.

Did you know you can play with your kids as therapy and totally for free? No fancy equipment required. If you have a couple toys, you have enough already.

When my twins were toddlers, they went through a phase where they did not want to be dropped off at the church nursery. One boy in particular would wail and cling, after never having an issue with it before. The nursery staff was a rotating roster of volunteer parents and grandparents so it was hard to “talk up” getting to see one consistent figure in particular.

So at home, we broke out the toys.

I got out the few mistmatched Little People we’d gotten from thrift stores (construction workers, knights, Duplo figures) and sat down with the boys before church one morning. A few weeks, I even did it the Saturday before or throughout the week. (I wish I’d remembered to do it more than just at the last minute, sometimes!) We made a nursery room outline out of blocks some mornings, sometimes we just used my legs as our room divisions. Some Little People were nursery workers, some were the boys, some were the other kids they would see in the nursery, and some were me and Adam. We’d “walk” our little family up to the “nursery door” and the Mama and Daddy figures (voiced by me) would say, “Oh, I love you! We’ll be back soon!” and the boys (again, voiced by me) would cheerfully reply, “I love you! I’ll see you soon!” and then I’d act out them playing in the room and having a snack and then being picked up again to go home. The twins loved it.

They’d insist that I do it again, and again, and then they would take over, playing out the same scene and creating variations.

Within one or two times, the boy that had been so reluctant was cheerfully walking into the nursery and confidently waving bye. His reluctance resurfaced one or two times in the next few months and we’d just pull out the toys again and play the game as a reminder.

When you have a young child, who is only partially verbal, his comprehension might surprise you sometimes. But other times, especially if there are attachment issues, an inability to express what it is that he is having a hard time with can be frustrating for everyone. He isn’t “being bad,” he’s just having a hard time. And what do you do in this situation?

(As a caveat, I can’t recommend that you force a recently-adopted child to be okay with being dropped off in a nursery. If they want mama, they should have mama.)

Maybe your kid is hitting a sibling every. single. time. he gets frustrated. Maybe you try to go to restaurants and it’s a disaster. Maybe your daughter doesn’t want to sit in the cart at the grocery store but takes off running or pulls stuff off shelves if she isn’t restrained. Maybe your son has to go with you to a wedding next month. Maybe your kids are getting ready for a field trip to the zoo and the idea of actually having a good day seems like a joke, because all you can imagine is LIONS and CHILD WHO LOVES TO CLIMB FENCES while one of them would leave, smiling, with any stranger who happened to grab a hand.

Sure, there are situations where kids are definitely just straight-up being disobedient (and some of this works for that anyway), but think for a minute about those situations I mentioned and any that sprang to mind. How many of those are situations where you know how to behave and are just assuming your child should? How many of these are situations where a child has literally no idea what to expect, no frame of reference, no preexisting base for what being “good” is when a stressed parent hisses, “Just be good.”

When I was younger, we visited family in another state and the adults decided to take us tubing down a river. I kept asking, “Tubing? What do you mean tubing?” And my cousin was so excited. “Tubing is the best!” he told me, over and over. “You’ll love it!” I was imagining literal plastic tubes, clear and futuristic, that we’d been shot through in some kind of vehicle, like a subway car. I couldn’t understand why it needed to happen near a river and why it was anything more than a subway ride. I spent two days in baffled amazement, before we got to the river tubing rental house and got…inner tubes. Inflated swimming pool rings, to sit in, while we drifted down a calm river. It was a blast but 100% different from what I’d anticipated. When we got in the car at the end of the day, I demanded, “Mom, why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t like a subway?” But she hadn’t realized that my mental image was why I’d been so confused.

Now imagine that you’re two and have limited verbal skills. Or that you’re seven and have limited English skills, or limited emotional literacy (the ability to talk accurately about emotions).

And now, let’s play.

Get out whatever little people you have. Action figures, Little People, Duplos, Lego minifigs, dolls, whatever. You can even use plastic animals or plain blocks with different colors. Decide what situational behavior you want to address (grocery store? upcoming family event? restaurant? library?). Now get your kid(s).

Just say, “This is Otto. This is Mama. This is Ursula.” Establish the identities of your toys. Use your own names and whatever the kids call you. You’ve got them for a few minutes, while they’re just curious and excited that you’re playing with them (if they are dragging their feet and whining as slightly older kids, tell them they have to stick it out; if this is play therapy, treat it like therapy– some good things are not optional and a lot of times they’ll be willingly participating within minutes).

First act out what usually happens.

“Mama and Otto are going to the grocery store. We get in the car, we go vrooooom. We find a parking space and get out. Otto holds on to the cart quietly while Mama checks her list. Noooo, Otto, come back here. Hold on to the cart. When Otto runs away, Mama gets him back. This isn’t how we act in a grocery store! Oh, Otto is running away again? Now Mama must put him in the cart. Otto is throwing a fit. [Get dramatic if your kid does, haha!] Now Mama must take him to the car and leave. What a sad trip to the store! They did not get their food! Otto is sad, Mama is sad! What can they do?”

Now act out what should happen. Use the toys to show your child what a grocery store trip should look like. Maybe he’s overwhelmed by all the food choices, maybe he’s excited, maybe he knows he’s making you mad or stressed but isn’t totally sure what you want him to do differently. After all, you walk through the store and grab, what seems to him, totally random items you like to eat and put them in the cart. Same for restaurant behavior.

“Mama, Daddy, Otto, and Ursula are going to the restaurant. They wait for their last name to be called and then they sit at their table. The waitress brings silverware and we leave it alone on the table until we have food. We sit quietly and we talk, ‘How was your day today, Daddy?’ ‘What is your favorite color, Mama?’ ‘What is your favorite animal, Ursula?’ They bring the food. We eat together. Oh, Otto has to go to the bathroom! He asks, ‘Please take me to the bathroom,’ and waits for someone to hold his hand.” and etc.

If you are play-acting an event like a wedding or funeral or family gathering, something that hasn’t been an area of behavior problem in the past, just play out what will happen to develop appropriate expectations. Don’t worry about inventing “bad” behavior to play out consequences. Just model what you expect and what they can expect.

Play out these scenarios more than one time. Do them over and over again in the course of the weeks leading up to an event, or the evening or morning before a trip to the store, to the restaurant, the library, church, the mall, the DMV.

The goal of play therapy is not to have perfect children. Of course you’ll still have to deal with stuff in the moment. But the goal is to prepare a child for a new, unusual, or problematic situation and equip them with a mental framework to choose how to act instead of being ruled by an emotion. I just started play-acting this morning with my toddler daughter, who has gotten into the habit of hitting or pulling hair every time an older brother tells her “no.” She has a consequence for being rough or violent, but that doesn’t remove the frustration she feels when a taller, bigger person tells her “no” and she doesn’t like it. So we play to learn how to handle that frustration in appropriate ways. Just “be gentle” isn’t cutting it with she’s overwhelmed with toddler emotion. It’s a fun game and it’s giving her something to do instead. Plus, Mom is playing with her, so that’s just awesome.

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Are their areas of your daily life you could apply this play therapy to? What situation will you act out this week?

4 thoughts on “Playing out our Problems

    1. Thanks! I hope you are doing well! It’s so nice to find good ways to prepare your kids for stuff you HAVE to do!


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