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How to support your child’s emotional creativity through play

Hannah and her family by Felicity Lass
Hannah and her family by Felicity Lass

by Hannah Abrahams

Educational and Child psychologist Hannah Abrahams gives us some great tips on how playing with puppets can encourage your child’s emotional creativity and resourcefulness.

It seems like forever that we psychologists have been emphasising the symbolism and significance of playing with our little ones. As a parent of three children I also empathise with how difficult this can be in the day-to-day grind of motherdom. However, by allowing ourselves just a brief moment to be creative we’re also safely creating and emotionally holding the space for a child to begin to “name” and on occasion to “tame” their big emotions, as well as creating a platform for reflection and validation of their feelings too.

I’ve found that during times of transition, emotional upheaval and uncertainty for children the use of puppetry and role-play can be invaluable. I noticed that my son often became extremely cross and obstinate during times of change but this was often because he did not have the bucket of emotional language to dip into in order to express his needs. As a toddler he was quite naturally unable to say, “Mummy I am not feeling confident about leaving Nursery and starting school and it’s quite frightening really. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what the teacher’s name will be or what I will need to do. ” Instead I received raging tantrums in supermarkets or a little pinch or knock. 

In order to help to reduce these behaviours, we as adults need to fill up our children’s emotional toolboxes. Puppetry and small world play are exceptional methods of doing this and also allow us not only to empathise with our children’s needs, worries and hopes but also bring ourselves right to their level so that they begin to feel more empowered and autonomous too. This exercise is great to use for any time of transition – but here I’ve used my own experience of my son starting school. (If you don’t have puppets at home you could use any small world toys or even make your own lollipop puppets.)

Denver Dinosaur and Hearty Hedgehog

It’s important that if your child has been experiencing separation anxiety at school that your creative play with them is open and not about re-enacting their experience or solving the problems for them. By using Denver, the dinosaur puppet who is worried about when he will be collected, and Hearty Hedgehog who will play with him at the sand tray, you’re encouraging discussion and reflection about your own child’s needs whilst ensuring that their vulnerable feelings are protected too. As the play progresses you’ll often find through quiet observation that they are indeed replaying their experience too whilst using greater emotional language and reflective skills.

Questions and statements in play are important to encourage your child’s development of their Theory of Mind, which means they will begin to consider that others may not always think as they do, helping them to develop empathy. 

“I wonder if Denver is feeling a bit worried about playtime today?” 

“How can we tell he is not sure what to do? Oh, look, he’s looking down to the ground and curling up his swishy tail.” 

“What do you think we could suggest he says to his friend Hearty?” 

“That’s a great idea, yes I’m going to say shall we play on the trikes together?”

“Oh, look he’s uncurling his toes and his tail and is beginning to grin, maybe he’s feeling a bit excited to play now and is happier to be at school today!”

Play is so very powerful and we know that it’s important for healthy brain development. By playing with and alongside your child you are quite literally supporting the development of their neurology and their synaptic pathways. From a very early age, it’s through play that children engage and interact with the world around them and also help to make sense of its many complexities. We know that in order for children to be ready for more formal aspects of learning when they’re much older and for their resilience and social skills, the more they play, the greater their emotional intelligence and sociability. So in my humble view, play and create away – and you’ll be helping your child to move and understand emotional mountains.

Hannah runs a practise based in Central and North London, and you can email her on hannahabrahamsep@gmail.com

hannahabrahams.com

THIS PIECE WAS REVIEWED BY michaela thomas AND EDITED BY ANNA CEESAY.

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