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Toddler Talk: Real-World Play

Many philosophers and educators agree that playing is not only healthy, but necessary for appropriate development and understanding of the world. Gretchen Owocki said, “As astronauts and space travelers children puzzle over the future; as dinosaurs and princesses they unearth the past. As weather reporters and restaurant workers they make sense of reality; as monsters and gremlins they make sense of the unreal.”

Knowing this, it is important to allow your kids to play through real world scenarios. These scenarios can be recreations of past experiences, practicing current situations or preparing for future events. Real-world play, the third in this series of types of commonly observed play, provides a safe environment to test fears, construct a different outcome or create safety and confidence in themselves and their lives.

An example might look like this:

Your child tells you that the people figures are friends and they are playing at his house. Soon the friends begin to disobey the rules and argue with each other. He tells them to stop or they are going to get in trouble. Finally, after they continue to break rules, he puts them in time out. He enforces the punishment and makes them apologize for not listening. After serving their time out, they are able to continue playing.

In this scenario, several things are happening. First, the child is switching roles—normally in the role of the disciplined, he becomes the discipliner. Assuming a different role helps the child understand things more clearly and have a broader perspective on life. Second, the child is playing out experiences he has already witnessed. As the child has surely broken rules and chosen consequences in the past, this play allows him to participate in the process in a new way. Finally, closure and resolution is achieved in the play. While real-life scenarios may not always have a final fix-it, the child can create an ending that makes sense or change the ending.

The benefits of this type of play are that children can safely play out a past, present, or future scenario over and over again until they are comfortable with their feelings about it. This can build confidence, coping skills, and resilience. Moreover, a child in an environment that does not change (home, school, day care) is able to respond differently to the same circumstances after processing the scenario in play. Additionally, the child gains a sense of control over their world when he can alter it in play and determine the outcome.

I am always amazed at the children who come into the playroom and almost immediately begin working on their most pressing issues without prompts from me. The child who gets in trouble at school plays the scenario until good behavior is achieved. The child scared of potty training plays the scenario until success is achieved. The child who misses her dad plays the scenario and creates more family time. Real-world play is an amazing process for children, and reminds us that solving problems doesn’t always have to be daunting!

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