I am birth mom of a daughter who is three-years-old. I was in an unhealthy relationship with her father that included domestic violence and I was using alcohol to attempt to cope. I went through the Kids & Families Together Therapeutic Visitation Center (TVC). Through the workshops and the sup-port, I began to change my life around and I began to under-stand the importance of being fully present to my child and at-tuning to her needs. During the visits, we would incorporate play such as blowing bubbles together and I would rock her and sing to her. This was a new experience for us since I didn’t in-teract with her all that much when I was drinking and worrying about the potential for violence within my relationship. I regret that I wasn’t there for her in her early life but I am grateful to be learning how to build a loving and nurturing relationship with her now in ways that she can count on me. Because playing together has been such an important part of our healing process, can you talk about the importance of play between a parent and child? I am grateful to the TVC and the Resource Parents who took good care of my child before I was healthy enough to reunify with her.
— Grateful parent from Oxnard
K&FT does use interactive play between a parent and a child as a therapeutic intervention. Play is a natural interaction between a parent and a baby. When a parent smiles and coos at her baby she is letting this baby know that she is special and the baby’s brain is reacting positively to this interaction and she will coo back. These early simple baby games such as peekaboo and pattycake are literally hard wiring her brain to be able to cope successfully later with the emotional stressors of life and to have emotionally healthy relationships with others.
For a child who missed out on these early interactions, the repair needs to happen at the age the milestone was not completed. Using these fun baby games with an older child and an emotionally safe caregiver, will help to entice the child into a relationship. Physically interactive games, such as peekaboo, increases eye contact in playful ways. A parent and child cupping their hands and blowing a feather back and forth allows for emotional state regulation. When two people play together in a joyful way, they are having a here and now experience of what is known as “joint attention.” Joint attention is a vital part of communication and language development. Sharing focus lets a child know you are interested in what she says and does. Playing and laughing together allows facial expressions and eye contact to express to the child that they matter and are important to the adult. Interactive play is important throughout a child’s life and even more so in these years of cell phones and other technology that takes us away from genuine, meaningful, relationships.
As I write this, I think of the play I’ve enjoyed with my own grandchildren. I remember a particular time when I was tired and not wanting to play only to have my grandson, Hudson, who was four at the time, beg me to play hide and seek with him. Once we started the game, I became totally absorbed in what we were doing. The laughter we shared when finding one another still rings in my ears and brings a smile to my face. Our hide and seek games allowed me to fully engage with Hudson and let go of any other thoughts or concerns as I was swept up in our here and now experience of hiding and then finding one another with great enthusiasm, which included hugs in our moment of re-connection! The laughter and joy that was awakened within me increased my internal understanding of the importance of play as much for my own well being, as for that of Hudson. Throughout the years, I have made it a high priority to play with each and every one of my grandchildren.
Laughter, running, jumping, being silly, twirling, smiling, creating are all part of play and having fun! Play for our kids (and ourselves) gives them (and us) a welcome break from stress and promotes mental health. Play is essential to a child’s development because research shows that it improves learning, cognitive awareness, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Play is essential for healthy brain and body development. Play gives kids tremendous learning opportunities, including how to work with others, manage feelings, and read other people’s emotions. Play also promotes physical fitness, creativity, self-expression, self-regulation, and healthy boundaries – basically physical and emotional wellness and mental health.
Many of us didn’t grow up understanding how to play so it can be hard to teach and encourage our child to play. However, children naturally know how to play if we encourage interactive play between parent and child from a young age. Notice what your child likes to do. This may change over time, so be flexible. Some kids might like cool science experiments, some only want to do something physical and outdoors, others may have music interests, want to cook with you, draw or create – the list is endless. Try to avoid video games – more can be learned without a screen! Instead, provide the raw materials your child needs to pursue their interests, explore their imaginations, experience their world around them, or express their creativity. Be genuinely interested in your child’s life. Make it your mission to understand and celebrate your child’s uniqueness and encourage him or her to be fully engaged in life which includes the necessity of play.