“Children’s play can be more fully appreciated when recognized as their natural medium of communication. Children express themselves more fully and more directly through self-initiated spontaneous play than they do verbally because they are more comfortable with play. For children to ‘play out’ their experiences and feelings is the most natural dynamic and self-healing process in which children can engage.” —-Garry Landreth (2002)
As a therapist, I totally agree with the above. A child healing herself through play is a deeply moving experience, full of gentleness–even when toys are crashing and rag dolls are being smashed.
But what happens when we have the child visit the playroom who wants to TALK? I’ve had several precocious/pseudo adults (parentified) children in the playroom. These children had learned to be included in adult conversation and expressed themselves often in words. With all activity in the playroom (as long as safety is maintained), I follow the child’s lead. When TALK therapy is encouraged by the child, I follow. I do not frustrate the child with a pre-determined set of expectations for using toys and play for communication.
What have these talkative children taught me? A lot, of course.
(I have learned so many valuable lessons about life, mine and others, in the playroom, that I am totally indebted to my clients for a vast enrichment of my own life.)
One of the concepts that worked well for me and for my kids was the one called “Buckets.” Here’s how it goes (how I introduce it to my kids, ages about 4 to 10, depending upon developmental and cognitive abilities):
I say, “There are a lot of feelings inside of us. It’s like we have Buckets of Feelings.” (Typically I point to my tummy as I say this. Typically the child nods and is “with me” as I talk and draw on the whiteboard. I draw a stick figure with a BIG tummy and then draw 4 BUCKETS inside the huge tummy.)
As I write: SAD, MAD, GLAD and BAD on each of the four BUCKETS. Sometimes I also draw a corresponding “smiley or frownie or really frownie face. Bad is a straight line with sad eyebrows. The child typically is quite involved at this point, laughing at my poor art or helping me by drawing better BUCKETS.
“We all have SAD and MAD and GLAD and BAD feelings.” (I draw as I talk, showing the BUCKETS filling up at various heights.) When we’re HAPPY, our GLAD BUCKET gets really full. When we get SAD, our SAD BUCKET can get so full that we cry or want a hug or want to sleep. When our MAD BUCKET gets full, it spills over and sometimes we yell at someone or hit someone or…. (whatever the child’s typical anger response it). Our BAD BUCKET is when we are ashamed or embarrassed.”
Then I hand the marker to the child and request the child to show me what is going on with their four BUCKETS. I have never had a child refuse to do this. They find this process of self-exploration and sharing with someone easy and helpful.
As sessions continue, usually these children who have been introduced to BUCKETS, will want to start the session by going to the white board and drawing their BUCKETS and showing how full or empty each BUCKET is.
What a GREAT check-in process.
Please feel free to use this simple process with your own child. It might work better than Mom asking, “Are you okay honey?” With the typical shake of your child’s head, finger in the mouth, a turning away, leaving you worried about how to help your child.