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The power of play

Somewhere along the way, I lost it – the desire to play. Something that I spent hours and hours pursuing and enjoying as a child had practically vanished. Sitting in a conference directed at adoptive parents, the speaker confessed that when he heard that one of the greatest ways to connect with children from hard places [actually any child] was through playful engagement, his heart sunk. He simply wasn’t good at playing with kids. His words resonated with me – play sometimes feels like work. How did that happen? There is an embarrassing part of myself that when in the midst of playing with one of my children is running through the “to do” list of grown up tasks that I’d rather be doing. I don’t like that about me. I’d like to be different.

The speaker then went on to offer light and hope to the audience. He referenced a book entitled “play – How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” by Stuart Brown, MD and talked about Brown’s work on 8 different play personalities. He shared that it was a relief when he realized that being silly and funny may not be his style, but he indeed did have a play personality that he could access with his children. That was good news to me as well.

For kids who are fairly compliant and “neuro-typical”– ie have not experienced brain chemistry altering trauma – using play to gain cooperation is connecting, fun and pleasant. For children who are more temperamentally defiant or who have experienced trauma and display a great deal of opposition, this approach can be incredibly effective. A few stories from our home:

Sunday mornings are often a drag and a drain around our house. The reasons are fairly complex, but getting our family out the door to church is almost always a big challenge. My husband is working hard to be a “connection/therapeutic parent” and has inspired me in recent days. He has always had more bent and energy toward play with our children. Part of that is because he has fewer hours interacting with them and part of that is that he seems to genuinely more fully enjoy playful interactions with his kids. He has modeled to me on the toughest morning of the week how to inspire cooperation. Through a creative and fun role playing with our daughters, playful inspectors show up to check on their readiness as we prepare to head out the door. Everyone leaves with a smile.

Our morning routine involves a few distasteful tasks, one of which is taking a sometimes overwhelming number of supplements and vitamins. Getting to school on time often hinges on whether this happens peacefully or with a great deal of drama. Inspired by Sunday mornings, I considered “what playful thing can I do to make this distasteful task more fun?” A cheerleader idea came to mind. I made up silly cheers and danced around a bit all the while encouraging those pills to go down. It was a hit. A bonus conversation ensued as questions about whether I was ever a cheerleader were asked. As a multi-time cheerleading try out participant, never an actual cheerleader, we got to talk about disappointments in not being chosen – something I am sure will come up again.

It was one of those mornings when I could tell from word one that emotions were strong, hurtful words were going to come at me and cooperation was going to be quite a challenge. My mom used to call it “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”. After a great deal of dysregulated behavior, there was one last thing to accomplish. Accepting that children from hard places often regress to much younger emotional ages when they are stressed is a big part of parenting them. Thankfully, “be playful and she is currently in the emotional space of a 1-2 year old” flitted through my mind. Truth be told, I was in the emotional space of about a 13 year old by that time. I pulled up the old tried and true choo choo train coming up to the tunnel to get something in the mouth, and it worked like a charm. I was literally astounded at the power of play in the midst of such a stressful time.

Honestly, when we need to get somewhere – church, school, an appointment, etc. – I prefer to bark out orders and have children jump in line. A few of the Wilson kids have temperaments that respond to this, but not all of them. So rather than ratchet up my own anxiety and frustration level, I am intentionally seeking out more playful ways to inspire and engage our daughters to move in desired directions. This approach will shift and change as they continue to age and mature. Play doesn’t happen with every interaction, but it does seem to be a handy tool that when accessed creates more enjoyment in our interactions I look forward to reading Dr. Brown’s book on play and developing my skills and love of play. I imagine that the benefits will be many.