7 fun ideas for exploring emotions through play
Have you noticed some changes in your child’s play recently? Covid-19 has turned our kids’ worlds upside down. Their lives have changed, and as a result, you’ve likely noticed some changes in their behaviour, too. The way your child plays might be one of those changes.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that your child wants to play nurses or doctors more than usual. Are they administering medicine to their dolls and teddies, “testing” you, or giving you injections? Or maybe they are scientists, finding a cure for a terrible illness? They might even be a superhero that needs to battle the bad guys and save the world!
I even had a few members of my Mindful Parenting Facebook Group let me know their kids have been incorporating cleaning into their play to prevent the spread of germs or were concerned about sharing toys with their siblings in case they had coronavirus on them.
If you’ve noticed these patterns emerging in your child’s play, you’re not alone. There’s also no need to worry. In fact, these changes are a very healthy sign! Play is the way our children learn about and process their emotions. And exploring emotions through play can help our children understanding new or difficult experiences and how to manage them. So what can you expect right now when it comes to your child’s play?
What you might be noticing about your child’s play right now
Right now, your child might be engaging more frequently in play that centres around or involves:
- Death and dying
- Superheroes and being rescued/saved
- Medical care
- Scary things like monsters or bad guys
- Separation or loss
- Being trapped, locked up or confined in some way
And the good news is, it’s all normal, healthy, and absolutely necessary for these themes to be popping up in your child’s play at the moment. So let’s talk about how, and why, exploring emotions through play is so important for your child.
The importance of play in processing emotions
Play has many benefits for young children, including building resilience, boosting self esteem, and developing self awareness. Play is the way children learn the skills they need to navigate and understand their world. It helps your child learn language skills, social skills, problem solving skills, empathy, and emotion regulation skills.
During play, children are able to construct an imaginary world that reflects the real one they’re living in. A world that helps them express the fears, anxieties, or frustrations they are experiencing in their lives. And as they play in this make believe world, they can act out their emotions in a safe, controlled environment.
They can conquer their fears. They can experiment with things that are normally off limits. They can fulfil their greatest desires! And as they do this, they learn how to understand and regulate their emotions. Some children will be able to do this with very little help from you, and others will need more guidance.
How can you help?
If you have noticed this kind of play happening in your home recently, then that’s great! This play will give you insight into your child’s understanding of what’s happening in the world, as well as a bit of insight into their own inner world and how they might be feeling right now.
The best thing you can do is stay close and observe your child. By simply paying close attention to your child’s play, you will get a sense of whether or not they need your help. You will have an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings your children may have, address any fears or anxieties and answer their questions. And if they invite you to join their play, simply follow their lead! Proceed gently, listen carefully and be on the lookout for signs from your child that they may have had enough.
Building emotional awareness through purposeful play
You might also like to use play time in a more purposeful and intentional way, to develop your child’s emotional awareness and explore some of their big feelings and ideas about what’s going on on their world. Play is the perfect time to do this – when you get down to your child’s level and play, they feel safe, connected and loved. These are the perfect conditions for learning!
So here are some ideas for exploring feelings and building self awareness and emotional intelligence through play.
7 ways to play with emotions:
1. Role Play
Role playing is one of the most effective ways to explore emotions with your child. You can try playing dress ups, setting up pretend play scenes, or using dolls, teddies, or puppets. This kind of play allows your child to externalise their experience, which makes it much easier to talk about. They may find it difficult to talk about their own feelings, but might be happy to talk about how dolly feels! Try asking questions like, “How do you think dolly feels about that?” Or, “Why might dolly be feeling sad today?”
Story telling is a great way to help kids understand their world and the complex emotions they experience as they navigate their way through it. You might like to read books that are specifically about emotions, or you can use your child’s favourite stories to start a conversation about the characters feelings and experiences. Try asking questions like, “How do you think this character feels?” or “How do you know she feels angry?”.
3. Board Games
Board games can help children learn important social skills, build empathy and develop self control. Board games about emotions are even more powerful! We have a large range of games in the marketplace that can help children understand emotions, and explore pro social qualities like kindness and helpfulness in a super fun way!
4. Feelings Games
Emotion cards are a great way to make learning about emotions fun and can help children learn to identify emotions and link them to events. You could play a simple game of guess the emotion, by holding the card up and asking your child to name it (you could even turn this into a beat the buzzer style game). You could even try games like feelings Snap or Memory with your emotion cards!
5. Art and Craft
Art and craft can be a wonderful creative outlet for kids to express how they are feeling. Younger children or kids who struggle to communicate their feelings using words, may be able to draw or paint their feelings instead. Like role play, this is another great way to externalise feelings, which makes them less scary and easier to manage. Try asking, “If your sadness had a colour, what would it be? Or, “If your anxiety was a person what would it look like?”.
See this blog post for some fun mindfulness crafts that can help your child manage emotions.
6. Outdoor Play
Playing outside amongst nature, with lots of room to jump, spin, run and explore, is a great way for your child to express and release their emotions. It is also a great opportunity for some mindfulness which can help them develop emotional awareness and understand the link between their emotions and physical sensations in the body.
7. Sensory/Messy Play
Sensory play such as playdough, sand or water play is another great way to link emotions and physical sensations, as well as to express emotions. Sensory play can be very calming for children and gives them an opportunity to practice self regulation skills. To build awareness you could try asking questions like, “How do you feel when you squeeze the play dough?” Or, “How do you know your body is calm?”
So there you go! This least is by no means exhaustive, but I hope that gives you some fun and simple ideas for exploring emotions through play! Ultimately, the best toy a child can have is a parent who plays with them, so don’t forget to get down on the floor and have some fun!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.