National PlayDay 2020

National PlayDay 2020 focuses on the role that play has in helping children make sense of the world around them, and alleviating stress and anxiety. To hear more about how child psychotherapists use play in their work, as well as how parents can help children engage in play at home, we spoke to ACP Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist Ben Yeo, who works for PAIRS (Parent and Infant Relationship Service) in Lambeth.

As a child psychotherapist, why does play matter?

Play is fun and at the same time a seriously important part of young children’s emotional development. Whether it’s role-play, playing with toys, or a baby’s earliest interactions with their caregiver, play helps children explore their emotions and make sense of the world.

As child psychotherapists our role, with the help of parents and other practitioners, can be to help distressed children recover their capacity to play, or indeed learn to play for the first time. Distress, trauma and adverse childhood experiences can inhibit a child’s ability to play.

In Parent-infant and Child Psychotherapy we can nurture playful interactions between babies, young children and their caregivers from the very beginning.

How does play help children?

The physical and social benefits of play are well documented, the link between play and children’s mental health is less recognised. In clinical work and in everyday life, I see children grappling with their feelings about past and present events through play.

A simple ‘peek-a-boo’ game can help babies explore feelings around separation and reunion. Young children running around being superheroes can help them express feelings of vulnerability and potency. Last week I saw a seven old pretending to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex angrily fighting off the originally named ‘Germosauras’… an example of the power of imaginary play to help children make sense of the pandemic.

How do you use play in your work?

Whether I am in a clinic, children’s centre, home visit or more recently online, I have simple toys at hand to facilitate play and I try to be in a playful state of mind. During the pandemic I have had to find new ways to engage children through play. Sitting on the floor with a box of toys can be helpful in engaging young children in a video call. Playing the computer game ‘Minecraft’ has engaged older children in a playful and creative online space.

Helping children play takes careful thought and attention from adults. It can be helpful to notice things (sometimes spoken aloud, sometimes just observed) about a young child’s play. Naming what is happening can help children to feel heard and understood.  I try not to lead the play or interrupt the flow of a child’s play by imposing my own meaning, but this is easier said than done. 

What sort of play do you think is most helpful?

All types of play can be helpful, but child-led play in the presence of a thoughtful and noticing adult is the best way to help children to express themselves. Letting the child take the lead can be challenging for parents and practitioners alike. As adults we can feel inhibited about play for reasons often linked to our own childhood experiences.

Play involves children taking important emotional risks as they grapple with challenging feelings. Play can be fun and at the same time an important opportunity to explore feelings of sadness, fear and exclusion. It is fascinating to notice the spectrum of emotions on a child’s concentrated face as they are playing.

How can parents encourage children to play? 

My top five tips are:

  • Set aside protected time and space each day which includes turning off the television and not checking your phone.
  • Be observant and try to follow your child’s lead.  
  • Be attentive and notice things about your child’s play (spoken aloud or to yourself).
  • Be prepared to be excluded from a game, this might be the whole point of the game.
  • Some days are easier than others, but if you persistently struggle to play with your child consider speaking to a professional such as your Health Visitor.

Are there any books or resources?

I would recommend a resource called ‘Watch Me Play’ which has been developed by a child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic to help parents and professionals to support child-led play.