What To Do When The “Force” is NOT With You – Intentional Teaching and Understanding Children’s Play

How The Batman Brigade Changed My Understanding of Play

Let me set the scene… Three preschool age children are tearing around the room using quick zig-zag motions – climbing on tables, jumping off chairs, darting out of sight. They’re wearing capes that they fashioned for themselves by ripping open pink skirts commandeered from a box of dress-up clothes. Locked and loaded with Lego guns, they’re on a relentless hunt for bad guys. In their minds, they are saving the world. In reality, they’re terrorizing my classroom and destroying my confidence as a teacher.

This was a “Calgon, take me away!” moment… And, the children had me questioning if I was cut out to be a teacher. They pushed me to the edge and I almost threw in the towel – until I decided to join their forces. I needed to better understand what was driving their need for this type of play. Why was it so attractive?

Let’s dig into that scene a bit more… It’s 1995. We’re in a US Department of Defense school in a small town in southern Germany. The children in my class have parents who are either members of the US Armed forces or diplomats from former Eastern-Block countries. Together, the class speaks 13 different languages. And, just a few hundred kilometers away, the Bosnian War is going strong. The children are communicating with each other through play to process their emotions, try on different roles and grasp a better understanding of what is going on in the world around them.

Once I better understood their need, the WHY that was controlling their inner Batman, I was able to support their need for exploring war play.

War play, perhaps more than another other type of activity, is super attractive to children. It helps them to feel strong and in control – “masters of their own universe” – as they plan for and carry out attacks. According to Nancy Carlsson and Diane Levin in their book, Who’s Calling the Shots, war play fits nicely into how children think. They typically group things into simple one-dimensional categories such as good vs. bad or sick vs. healthy. You can be one or the other – but not both. War play provides children with opportunities to feel a sense of power as they experiment with their thoughts and feelings within these categories. We typically see an uptick in this type of play when children are experiencing a difficult event, such as divorce, a sick parent, or in the case of 1995, a nearby conflict. The COVID-19 pandemic now joins the list of catalysts.

The Atlantic recently published an article about how the coronavirus is influencing children’s play. In the article, Kate Cray writes that “Play is children’s language. They act out pretend scenarios to express concerns, ask questions, and, crucially, reshape a narrative. During pretend play, children are driving the plot and can change the outcome of a scary situation or try out different solutions to a problem.” With these needs in mind, Cray goes on to reassure parents that they should not discourage this type of play. Children need outlets for processing emotions, coping with worries and fears and practicing creative problem-solving skills. While many parents would agree that this is all well and good, many of you wonder – what you can do to support your child’s play as they process emotions?

Below are some strategies suggested by Carlsson and Levin:

  • Get to know the scene. What are the themes or storylines in your child’s play (good vs. bad, sickness, family dynamics)? Who are the main characters? What are they talking about? What are the problems that they are solving? What strategies are being used to solve problems? How much time is devoted to the various themes? Is your child inventing scenarios or situations or are they imitating something they experienced personally or saw on television? When observing the scene, think about strategies you might use when joining a conversation cluster at a cocktail party… Most of us will listen in for a while to determine what people are talking about before contributing to the conversation so that we don’t take it over. Follow this same etiquette with your child.
  • Once you understand what’s happening in your child’s play, try to participate without taking over. The power in pretend play is the feeling of control and adults need to make sure that we don’t interfere. One way to ensure that you don’t take over is to limit your language to making comments that describe what is happening such as, “I see that your dog is sick and that you’re rushing him to the emergency room.” Or, “I hear you talking about using your superpowers to kill the bad guys.” Another strategy is to use open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered with yes/no or a response that is right or wrong). For example, “What do you think you can do to help your dog feel better?” Or, “How do your superpowers help you to fight the bad guys?”
  • Try to learn about the needs being worked on in play. Does your child’s play focus on being powerful and strong? Are fears or insecurities such as getting lost, dying, or monsters surfacing? If so, try to find a quiet moment to talk with your child. Reassure your child without belittling their feelings or making promises that everything will be okay. You can also read books aloud to your child that cover similar topics. I really like the book, Kate’s Giants. The message in this story is, “If you can think it in, then you can think it out. Just take a deep breath before you think.” Honestly, we could all benefit that advice right now…
  • During times when the world is unsettled, look for simple ways to help your child feel a sense of empowerment and control. Provide opportunities for your child to make limited choices within a non-negotiable decision that is already made. For example, you can say, “It’s time for lunch. (non-negotiable) Would you like to have peanut butter and jelly or egg salad?” (choice point) Or, “It’s time to get dressed. (non-negotiable) Would you like your red shirt or your green shirt? (choice point) Experiencing an ability to make meaningful choices will help your child feel in control of their world.

Some of you may be thinking “you know, I think my kids are battling each other with those makeshift swords simply because it’s fun” and in many ways that could be very true. Its fast pace, level of activity and accompanying sound-effects (Ka-POW!) are appealing. But there are often subtle (or not so subtle) feelings behind the play themes your children choose. Be observant, show interest and look or any patterns that may indicate that you child could use a bit of extra emotional support.

If you are noticing changes in your child’s play and would like to connect, please feel free to reach out to me. In addition, if you sense that your child is struggling or acting out, you are always welcome to contact Sterling Kranjcec, BCD’s school counselor at skranjcec@bouldercountryday.org.

We’re here for you!