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Toddler Talk: Emotional Regulation Play

One of the greatest parts of being a play therapist is that I am able to witness the positive outcomes of children's play. As sessions pass, I recognize the changes that are evident in the child—and I am always able to trace it back to specific play sequences. The amazing thing is that with awareness of what is taking place, anyone can identify these three types of play and their associated benefits.

Emotional regulation play, the first in this series of types of commonly observed play, includes both positive and negative emotions expressed in tandem. The child uses toys to create scenarios that allow for both feelings to coexist and make sense in their play. Most often, the negative emotion emerges first, followed with the positive emotion as a result of a change the child makes.

An example might look like this:

Your child tells you that the boy figure is sick. His play depicts the family bringing him soup, covering him up with the blanket, worrying about his fever, and so on. Notice that this play would have most likely been witnessed by the child in the past. Through his play, he retrieves the medical kit and assumes the role of the doctor, administering shots, giving checkups, and eventually pronouncing complete restoration of health. The fear and worry of the sick child led to the resolution of the problem.

I think it is also important to point out that in this type of play, violent or negative behavior is often necessary to warrant the intervention that leads to a solution. In other words, the "bad guy" has to rob the bank before the child can become the police officer that arrests and takes him to jail; thereby restoring safety and order once again. Or the baby must be forgotten in the burning house in order for the child to be a firefighter that rescues it.

The benefits of this type of play are that the child is able to gain greater understanding of emotions and feelings associated with certain types of situations. For example, “This is scary, but I am able to figure out a better ending.” Further, the child learns to regulate emotions, as the power of negative feelings is not nearly as overwhelming when experienced in play times. Finally, problem solving and decision making skills are developed, as children search and discover methods for fixing negative situations.

Some of the most challenging play scenarios can end in a positive manner, when the child employs creativity and creates different-then-expected outcomes. As adults, we might be tempted to intervene when a child picks up a play knife and approaches the teddy bear. However, in order for the teddy bear to be healed and well-cared for, it must first have a wound that needs to be addressed. Emotional regulation play allows for just that situation, and almost always ends in a better place than where it begins.

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