A Tool To Transform Emotions & Help Us Feel Safe: The Power Of Play
I always bring scarves with me when I visit my two year old nephew - yes, I’m a pretty fun aunt! - and we were doing our usual play, laying them out, dancing, spinning on them, when all of a sudden his voice got really serious and low, “I’m going to put my scarf in front of you,” he said with a hint of a threat.
I was curious and said, “Oh yeah?”
He replied real serious, “Yeah, and you’re gonna slip on it!”
Let’s pretend that all time stopped, because for an instant it felt like it did.
I had a choice as the adult in this scenario. I could have said, “Now, now, we don’t threaten people with any type of bodily harm.” Or something along those lines: We don’t talk to people like that, that’s a little mean to want our friends to slip on things.
But instead, this is what I did.
I stood up and looked at the scarf he had placed on the floor, looked at him and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m not going to…WHOA!” And with that, I slipped on the scarf very dramatically and fell to the ground.
I looked up at him and his whole face lit up in a giant smile. He laughed a hearty belly laugh and then said, “Put one in front of me! Put one in front of me!”
I got up and said, “I’m gonna put this scarf in front of you.”
Meanwhile he’s saying the same thing, “I’m gonna put THIS scarf in front of you!”
We are laughing as we say it and lay them on the floor and then we look up at each other so we can pretend slip at the same time.
If it’s safe and all parties are in it together, play can be highly effective to explore and transform emotions.
If we were on a hard floor it wouldn’t have been safe and I would have approached it differently. If we hadn’t already been playing and he just suddenly grabbed a scarf and said these words I would have began a conversation about what he was feeling and different ways to feel our feelings without hurting others.
Without any of those red flags, I felt confident that this was all an experiment in play - conscious or unconscious - to test the boundaries of safety and fun.
And here’s what I love most:
He might have been upset about something that happened earlier in the day and was still processing his feelings but by staying in play mode, he was not only safe to feel what he was feeling, but also experienced how play can transform feelings of upset into feelings of joy.
Play is powerful.
It can help children process emotions, connect with others, learn about the world, and feel safe and loved.
When we make the choice to play with them, they know they aren’t alone.
They can relax and feel safe.
And anything is possible.
A Practice in Play: Make Up Stories
If you feel like you need to stretch your play muscles a bit then here is a very simple activity for you to attempt.
Feel free to attempt this with your kids, your loved ones, your friends or just by yourself!
The goal: To playfully make up a story - any story - and this story doesn’t have to make logical sense, it just has to feel good to you and your fellow participants.
- Imagine or brainstorm with your partner the main character(s). Is it a human, animal, alien or monster? What’s their name? What do they look like? What are they like?
- Imagine what they are going to do. Are they on an adventure? Are they picking something up from a store? Are they hanging out?
- Continue to piece together the story from there. Your story may be exciting and daring or calming and simple.
Typically we create a story that reflects something we need to explore, nurture or release.
Allow yourself to create without judgment and let your curiosity be your guiding light.
If you’re doing this with kids, just gently guide them if they get stuck. Let them be the leaders and do your best to be a witness and participant in play, rather than a voice of logic. If their character is mean or scary or sad, give them the opportunity to explore those feelings. As long as they are being safe with their body and yours (as this may become a theatrical enactment), then let the story unfold.
Do your best. Celebrate the power of play.
Once you’ve finished the story, return to being the adult. Follow up on any elements of the story if needed with your guidance, lessons and love.
I'd love to hear from you
Let me know how it goes in the comments below. And if you have any questions or concerns about your child's play then contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.