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Toddler Talk: Play vs. Reality

I remember several parent consultations where I discussed my play therapy approach including freedom and leniency about play in the playroom, and was met with surprise and confusion. I was typically asked what repercussions would result at home, by allowing the child to act in the play room in ways that are normally against the rules. The answer is none!

To help you understand more of the process in play therapy, let me set the stage. I began each play session with this statement to the child: “You can play with all of the toys in most of the ways that you like.” Then I allowed the child to direct and guide each session, acting in any manner or making any decisions as long as both the child and I were safe. This often involved aggressive or angry play, taking advantage of situations to gain the upper hand, and cheating or manipulating circumstances to benefit himself.

Normally, in these children’s real lives, parents or teachers would intervene in these scenarios and stop these behaviors. Further, there would probably be a few moments spent explaining why these actions are not kind, not fair, or not acceptable. However, entering the play room afforded them the opportunity to act in ways that would normally be prohibited, thereby expanding their self-responsibility.

The leniency with rules and expectations during play times mean that I spent hundreds of hours witnessing the power of undirected play. Children learned on their own how to be fair to others, why rules are necessary, and what happens when violence or aggression is introduced. The self-discovery process that emerges through the testing of boundaries and the awareness of consequences is more effective that any discussion of rules.

The beauty of it all is that children instinctively understand the difference between play and reality. What freedom is provided in the context of play will not be expected at home. Rules that exist within the family are still understood to be followed, even if they were lifted during a play time. It does not create confusion or breed disobedience, but rather communicates that play time serves a distinct purpose; it offers an escape from the normal and routine which provides an outlet for exploration and discovery.

So, when your child is playing and throws the baby out of the dollhouse window or shoves the army man’s head into the sand, guard against correcting the behavior. If given the chance to play the scenario through, your child will likely come to the same conclusions you would teach, albeit in a different method and approach. When kids learn through play, the lessons are far more significant because they figured them out for themselves!

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