Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting series. Joanna joined us for a live chat with the Frolo community to talk about how to build stronger connections through play with our children from babies through to teenagers. Here’s what we learned from Joanna about the stages of play in early childhood.
The journey really begins with us. It begins when we learn to rely on our own parenting wisdom, to look within, and to consider our ‘own stuff’. We all have stuff of course – things that push our buttons, things that trigger us. It’s a journey of going inwards in order to parent outwards. It all about how to secure and strengthen connection with your child in order to bring about a correction in their behaviour.
You can’t have correction without a connection.
So many difficult behaviours in children are simply them trying to communicate something to us. They are often trying to tell us that something isn’t right, that they feel off about something, but they don’t have the emotional fluency to explain it. While they may not have the emotional literacy to communicate difficult feelings, one thing children DO have is play.
You can’t have correction without a connection.
Play can be an invaluable communication tool for us as parents and is a very effective way for children to learn. Shifting our understanding of play from being a box of toys in the corner of the room to a state of mind and a way of being is key – parenting is about connection and play fuels connection.
At the moment many of us are finding ourselves responsible for supporting our children to learn at home, and play is a fantastic way into this. Every day, try beginning with 15 minutes of play to really engage and connect with your child before moving into more structured learning with, of course, the promise of more play to come!
How does a child understand what 15 minutes means?
For young children especially, time can be a very abstract concept, so a visual structure such as a sand timer is perfect to help them understand the amount of time they have for each task. Telling a small child ‘we are going to play until all the sand has gone and then we are going to do some maths’ gives them far more control – the time is moving WITH them rather than happening TO them.
What exactly do we mean by play?
One way to understand what we mean by play is to think about how we experienced play when we were young and how this has impacted the way we play with our own children. Again, this is about looking inwards to better understand ourselves and how we parent.
Parenting is about connection and play fuels connection.
Joanna challenges us to ask ourselves some questions and, more importantly, to take the time to think about them and answer them! (You’ve read a book before and skipped over the questions to the next part right? We’ve all done it!)
Who played with you as a child? Who sung to you? Do you recall a game you played? How did that feel at the time and how does it make you feel on reflection? Answering these questions is so valuable – from this we can consider if there are things we wish had been done differently, if a different approach might have made us feel more positive about the experience, and this can then feed into what we do with our own children.
Is play only relevant for young children?
No. As Joanna explained, play is not just valuable for small children, it’s useful for children of all ages. It’s also important as a parent to consider whether or not your child experienced the different developmental stages of play as a young child and, if not, how you might go about closing these gaps. This doesn’t mean getting out the PlayDoh for a 15 year old, it simply means finding a way of meeting those developmental needs, but in an age appropriate way.
What are the different developmental stages of play?
The first stage of play is all about the senses. The sensory play stage is from infancy up to about age four, although if your older child still enjoys sensory play then that’s okay! The stages are approximate and there is no such thing as too much play at any age.
Sensory play is messy, tactile, exploratory play. It’s sand, water and dried pasta. It’s banging pots with a wooden spoon, anything that makes a noise. There are lots of ways to enjoy sensory play with things that you have at home – it’s not about having to buy any specialist equipement.
If you are mess averse, you need to own it about yourself, but do it anyway. Sensory play is not just something that’s fun for kids – it’s essential to help them learn about themselves, the difference between the external and the internal, and about boundaries and limits. If we don’t show are children that we can contain and manage their external mess, how will they feel safe to come to us with their internal mess? How do they know that we can help them contain and make sense of that?
Sensory play is not just something that’s fun for kids – it’s essential.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy sensory play without our walls ending up covered in paint, so don’t worry, you just need to be a bit creative. For example, buy cheap rolls of lining paper and use it to completely cover your painting table, taping it into place. Let your child loose with the finger paints and then at the end simply fold up all the paper and throw it away – no mess.
What comes after sensory play?
The second developmental stage of play is more narrative play. This is the sort of play where a child takes two characters and mimics a conversation between them. This type of play is key in helping a child learn to see something from another perspective. Creating a conversation between two teddies, trains, or whatever it may be, helps your child to problem solve, and to learn about critical thinking, turn taking and empathy.
This is the stage of play where they really learn to step out of their own experiences and feel it from someone else’s perspective, and this is the foundation for empathy. Watching two characters on a TV show working something out between them is not the same as doing it themselves, and this stage of play is often the one that gets missed.
What about role play?
The third stage, which is roughly between the ages of five and seven, is role play. Stage three builds on the first two stages – in this stage the child BECOMES the character they created in stage two. It’s a dramatic stage of play where they really get to test the bounddaries and think about what might be possible within any role.
Don’t worry if some of this role play involves them lining up their toys and shouting at them in the role of parent or teacher, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong or need to pay a visit to school! This stage is all about exploring possibilities and pushing boundaries and is all part of the learning journey.
It’s only after this third stage that children become capable of self-regulation. Don’t forget, this milestone might not correspond to a particular age – it’s about developmental age rather than a number on the calendar. Every child is an individual and develops at their own pace, just as we, as parents, are all unique too.
This is just a part of the conversation we had with Joanna. You can watch the full session, where we talk about play with teenagers and supporting children through transitions, among other things, on the Frolo YouTube channel.