06 October, 2010


"Given sand, water and a bucket an infant will unaidedly do physics, maths, [...] technology, design, hydraulics and (if burbling) language. A child burying an offending teddy head-first in the sand is doing ethics and drama [...] what is served by interfering with this personal curriculum because it is time to chant ABCs? [...] You've wrecked the game and impoverished the child." Libby Purves, The Times, 15 June 1999.

Many children struggle to talk or write about their feelings and emotions (indeed many of us find it hard long after childhood!), so taking an entirely new approach can often help break down the barriers of self-protection. I suspect that most of us now understand that play is an essential way to learn, but the power of using play is not just in learning how the world works, the maths, physics etc, but can also be used to improve children's emotional literacy, alleviating behaviour and mental health problems.

Promoting emotional literacy, alleviating behaviour and mental problems, seems to be a tall order to ask from 'playing', but play has been recognised for millennia as a way of understanding children. Even Plato said "you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation". Play isn't as left field as many perceive it.

Plato, Rousseau, Freud and Frederick Frobel are all towering figures who discussed the importance of play. Our more modern understanding of play therapy is over a century old. Research has long supported the understanding that children act out the problems of their daily lives during their playtime. Research by Jacob Moreno, Melanie Klein and David Levy to name just a few have all contributed to our current understanding of play. Their research has found that children are able to express their inner feelings through play with puppets and dolls, and that these objects can personify significant figures in their lives. Children have the ability to suspend disbelief with puppets so that the characters can become very real and their interactions become meaningful. Play also provokes the subconscious realisation in children that they can be the agents of change; that they possess the power to find solutions to problems and then to put these solutions into effect.

In Progressive Education Virginia Axline talks about 'Entering the child’s world via play experiences' Axline explains her concept of play therapy, "A play experience is therapeutic because it provides a secure relationship between the child and the adult, so that the child has the freedom and room to state himself in his own terms, exactly as he is at that moment in his own way and in his own time".

In Creative Play with Children at Risk Sue Jennings goes on to explain the importance of play... 'If this journey is not taken then 'Children do not thrive and their brains do not develop unless they have the constant presence of a 'significant other'. Nurture is communicated through play; nurture takes the basic material of nature and provides all that is needed for early childhood development.' In the same book Sue Jennings looks at many different types of play that can be used to engage students in their emotional literacy:

Sandplay:- Sculpting describes an arrangement of objects as a picture which illustrates the personal or professional dynamics of a person or group. Sand has many uses and associations so it provides a very free canvas to work with. Usually younger children are very happy to play with just the sand and water. Older children either want to construct with the sand and make castles or fortresses, or they begin to develop imaginative scenes and pictures. Have a selection of small objects available for sculpting. Children may play out their dreams or fears, their hopes and their wishes through creating in the sand tray.

Drama:- A child may want to explore aspects of their own situation through dramatisation. You can find techniques to represent other characters in the story who are important to the narrative. For example, you can have several chairs with masks hung on the back or the child may hold the mask and speak as the character. This is also a good way of developing the child authentic voice, allowing them to say the things they would like to, in the way they would like to without the feeling of outside influence.

Puppets: - For some children, feelings have to be projected into other creatures or toys or pictures before they can own them for themselves. For example, the child who feels bad will usually make a doll or teddy into the good child when they cannot own the feeling for themselves. This is where puppet work comes into its own. Puppets can take on any roles that the child chooses. You may decide to have a puppet each and enter into dialogue or create a play or share secrets. Another advantage of puppet work is that the child has control over the puppets and that it is 'once removed' from the child's direct experience. Many children will relate to puppets when they are unable to relate to other people.

Creative Journeys:- Guiding children on creative journeys and presenting them with a theoretical challenge or obstacle will often allow you to see their instinctive coping mechanism when faced with a "problem". If a child becomes stubborn and decides to kick their way through the obstacle then it is probably a good indication of their behaviour in reality. Whilst discussing the journey of say, a bird that has been told he cannot migrate to the warm winter, you can get the child to explore further ways of looking at the problem, he could be angry or upset or perhaps he could find a way of showing that he is ready.
Read, Learn and Flourish!
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