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How play develops children’s emotional resilience

Play is the way that children learn and make sense of the world around them.  It’s through play that children develop the skills and abilities necessary to be able to navigate this complex world.  These skills are physical, cognitive, social and also, importantly, emotional.

 As LR Knost, mother of six and gentle parenting advocate, so beautifully explains: “For a child, it is in the simplicity of play that the complexity of life is sorted, like puzzle pieces joined together to make sense of the world.”  In this way, play helps children to develop their emotional resilience.

As a clinical psychologist I often use play in my direct work with children and their families.  It’s an excellent way to enable communication and expression of feelings with children, often without the need for words that are sometimes difficult to find.

I am also a firm believer in the power of play in early intervention and prevention of emotional and psychological difficulties.  I sometimes offer families a ‘prescription’ for play, particularly as play is a brilliant way to build attachments with children. 

Paediatrician and psychoanalyst, DW Winnicott (1896 – 1971), was a firm believer in the value of play for healthy psychological development. He suggested that play initially takes place in the ‘potential space’ which originates in the trusting relationship between the baby and her/his primary caregiver. 

We continue to need to experience this ‘potential space’ in order to be able to play – that is to feel safe and accepted for who we are and what we express in our play.  Winnicott described play as the space where an individual (child or adult) can experience their ‘true self’ – that is their authentic, creative self.  It is in this way that children can use play to develop emotionally.

Fear

Children love the thrill of play – from being tossed up in the air by a caregiver, to spinning on a roundabout, to climbing a tree, to being chased by a ‘monster’.

In this play, children experience a level of fear that is tolerable – out of their comfort zone but at a level below that which may cause them to fight, flee or freeze. 

In this way, they learn to recognise fear and its effect; they learn how to regulate these feelings so that they are not overwhelmed by them; and they gain the confidence to manage their feelings of fear in other situations.  They learn that fear is something normal and healthy and something with which they have the tools to cope.

Play and processing emotion

Sometimes life events can leave children feeling that they have some big feelings that they don’t know what to do with. 

It could be the arrival of a new sibling, a parent working away or even witnessing an accident.  Play provides children with opportunities to process these big feelings.  Often children will create these opportunities for themselves, for example, spontaneously choosing to draw or act out with toys something important that they have experienced.

If a child appears to be struggling with big emotions then caregivers may offer opportunities for expressing these feelings in a safe way; for example, building up a large tower of blocks and knocking it down, making sandcastles on the beach and jumping on them, or having a pillow fight.  Once the strong, scary feelings are being addressed, it may happen that laughter or tears follow.  Both laughter and tears are a way of diffusing emotion. 

There is scientific evidence to suggest that play experiences actually affect the way the brain is wired.  With regards to emotional development, play shapes the neuronal connections in the frontal lobe regions, which is the part of the brain that is involved in processing and regulating emotions.  Scientists have suggested that it’s free, non-directive play that most powerfully encourages this effect.

So, what can caregivers do to support children?  They can ‘scaffold’ experiences for children by providing a physical environment that encourages play.  However, it is also important that caregivers create an interpersonal atmosphere in which children feel safe to explore and take risks.  This comes from close, trusting and respectful child-caregiver relationships.  And when children are playing and sharing their feelings, they need to feel confident that a caregiver will not be overwhelmed by the strong feelings; that their feelings are not something of which to be ashamed; and that their feelings are acknowledged and accepted.

Reflections on play

  • Whilst adults may prefer to talk about their feelings, play is the language of children and therefore, it is through play that children will process their feelings.
  • Play helps children to develop emotional resilience.
  • Play has a direct impact on the part of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotions.
  • How do you provide a physical and interpersonal environment that facilitates play?

About the author

Dr Virginia Lumsden is a clinical psychologist working with children, young people and their families in the NHS and independent practice.  She has an MSc in Child Development from the Institute of Education and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from University College London.  Virginia is registered with the Health & Care Professions Council and is a member of the British Psychological Society.

Virginia believes that a strong caregiver-child connection is the key to developing a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.  To this end, she is committed to supporting parents and other caregivers in their own self-care as she believes that this helps to ensure that these adults are emotionally available to build meaningful connections with children.

Virginia is a guest lecturer at City University London, she presents her work at conferences, and has had her research published in peer-reviewed journals.  When she is not working, Virginia enjoys being in the moment with her own young family.

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