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Toddler Talk: Self-Confidence and Mastery Play

One of the growing concerns in early childhood development and mental health is that children are exhibiting less self-esteem and lower confidence at earlier ages. I saw this as a consistent challenge in my practice, with most children presenting behavioral issues related to low self-worth.

As a result, it was even more significant when a child previously hindered by unbelief in themselves or their abilities began self-confidence and mastery play. I knew that after a few sessions, there would be a marked difference in their self-esteem and behavior. This type of play, the second in this series of types of commonly observed play, allows a child to test their abilities and grow in their belief in themselves and their capabilities.

An example might look like this:

Your child sets up plastic bowling pins and begins to roll the ball towards them. The ball misses all of the pins. She tries again, and knocks down one. She eventually continues this until all of the pins are down. She sets the pins up again, and tells you that she wants to get a strike. This pattern will continue, missing most of them but not giving up, until the strike is finally achieved.

Most children need to test their abilities and feel confident in what they can accomplish. This requires vulnerability and demonstrating weakness, neither of which are comfortable in many situations. Play time, however, allows a safe and comfortable place to try and fail until they try and succeed. The success, often hard-earned and time consuming, proves to them that they can accomplish and master difficult tasks. This helps them to trust in themselves and be self-aware of their limitations and potential.

The benefits of this type of play are that the child is more comfortable with herself and her confidence increases. Children with higher self-esteem perform better in school and have better relationships with peers. Further, the child who recognizes she is fully able to achieve goals and face challenges does not feel the need to prove herself with aggression, anger, rebellion, or power struggling.

A child who knows who she is and what she is good at is not going to push so hard to prove herself to her peers or her family. Even more important is that when she knows what she is capable of, she is less likely to be negatively affected by peer pressure and criticism as she gets older. As an adult, it may be easy to step in and help with a task that the child seems to be struggling with during play, but that struggle is the very manner by which the child becomes confident and better able to handle challenges in the future.

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