It had been a long, boring day and by 3.30 both of my children were having arguments and getting emotional about the smallest upsets. We were venturing into melt-down territory.
I had several deadlines to wrap up before close of business and I was frantically trying to pack for a camping trip. However amidst all the sibling chaos I hadn’t managed to get much done. I found myself getting tenser and more ticked off every time they complained about each other. I was irritated and on the verge of being a snappy mama! It took this intense moment for me to realise that it was not my children’s fault I was stressed. I had to stop and re-evaluate the situation.
They needed me. In my busyness, I hadn’t actually sat down to connect with them at all.
Connect With Your Children Through Play
Children behave and function better when they feel connected and loved. In a child’s eyes, playtime with a parent or loved one is a very special and cherished time. Children just love when adults leave their grown up duties to come and spend quality time with them, when you follow their lead and interact in a playful way at their level. What better platform for building a strong emotional bond then through play.
When you connect through play you offer your child time to de-stress, cease power struggles and to feel a greater sense of control. This restores the balance and connection between you. Even after a rough day, involving yourself in play can provide a much needed opportunity to re-connect.
In order to restore the balance between my arguing children and control my own frustration I needed to stop everything, for just 15 minutes. I switched off from work mode and offered them my attention in a playful way, “You guys don’t seem to be having much fun at the moment, why don’t we get some blue water and see if we can make a lake in the sand pit?” I tried to say it in my most enthusiastic, playful mama voice. They both jumped and yelled, “Yes!”
Children Learn Through Play
Playtime can also be utilised as an intentional time to develop emotional awareness. Just by involving yourself in their play and following their lead you are showing your child that you are interested in their current interests, feelings and concerns. After all “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning” (Fred Rogers) and through play children learn about their world, their place in it, and their emotions.
No devices or distractions and my full attention was all it took for my children to calm down, connect and initiate conversation about all the chaos that had been happening prior to our play intervention. They had time to re-centre, they had all my attention and love, they felt safe because I was at their level playing with them and able to guide their conversation. We talked about how they had been feeling and what they could do about it. It didn’t take much and they started talking respectfully to each other and reflecting on the day.
If you are at their level being involved, following their lead, listening to them and playing; then you will have a fabulous opportunity to pay attention to their play themes, open communication and their emotional awareness.
Exploring Emotions During Play Time
Emotional awareness a concept parents often don’t explore until it surfaces in an extreme form; during power struggles, extreme outbursts, tantrums, aggression or during times of heightened stress. As I did on this day, parents often forget that emotional awareness and the ability to control emotions is an abstract notion that children are still learning. It is something they need help with.
It can be difficult to “teach” as emotional awareness is mostly learnt through experience and observation. Being emotionally aware is an important step in the development of empathy and emotional intelligence. Parents can start exploring emotional awareness with children from a young age simply by labelling and discussing feelings during play.
9 Ways to Explore Emotional Awareness Through Play
1. Playful Intervention: Similar to my scenario above, when you notice your child or children struggling with big emotions you can intervene in a playful way. Once they feel safe, loved and calm they are in a better mindset to talk about solutions. When they are connected with you, power struggles decrease and they are more coherently able to reflect on how they experience big emotions.
2. Pretend Play: Use pretend play to explore feelings. You can initiate imaginary situations that would evoke strong emotions. For example, in a dinosaur pretend play scene recently my little girl was pretending not to let another dinosaur join in “go away we were here first” she growled. So I had my dinosaur figurine reply “Oh no, look at triceratops’ face! He looks lonely and left out. I think he could do with some help building his camp fire.” She got the lonely dinosaur and built a pile of sticks, so I replied “triceratops feels like part of our team now. That made him happy”.
3. Label Emotions: Shift the focus towards feelings during play time. When reading books or colouring-in together you can discuss how you think a a character feels or how your child would feel if they were in their shoes. You can identify and label emotions exhibited by the characters, or in their facial expressions. This can also apply to imaginary play scenes. In the example above you could extend the play by further discussing why Triceratops felt lonely, how the child would feel if they were the one being left out, and what they could do if they were in that situation or felt that way.
4. Role Play: Role play provides a fabulous opportunity to explore appropriate ways to express emotions. For instance, if your child wants to play shop keeper you can assume different characters and emotions – for example, getting upset that you purchased the wrong thing and returning it, being happy that something was on special, getting frustrated when you can’t find the right grocery – and model to your child how you calm down and find assistance. Hand puppets are a great tool to role play how to manage emotions. Children are captivated by puppets and you can see how we use them to teach social skills here.
5. Emotional Intelligence Listening Game: This twist on the classic game of Simon Says explores reading and imitating emotional visual cues and body language.
6. Make Emotions: You can introduce emotions into play just by making a silly face and asking “how do I feel?” or by playing peekaboo and making different faces. Or play with play dough and make an emotional face in the dough, or paint together and create an emotion on a face. It is easy to explore emotions playfully in every day moments. If we have French toast or pies, I will even use the sauce bottle to draw a facial expression onto their food.
7. Read Books: Books provide a great way to connect with your children and a perfect opportunity to introduce or discuss new concepts. Here are 15 fantastic books for developing emotional awareness.
8. Listen: While connecting through play and really listening to your child’s play themes you might be able to identify reoccurring scenarios or themes initiated during play. This might be something that they are interested to learn more about or better understand, it might be something they have observed or experienced, or it might simply be play that is suitable for use as a teachable moment.
9. Explore the 5 Core Emotions: Watch the movie Inside Out with your children and discuss the characters representing the 5 core emotions. These emotions are linked to colours, so you can also “colour emotions” by using the correlating colours and asking your child to draw what they feel. Drawing is a great tool for children to use to express themselves, their thoughts and feelings.
By exploring emotional awareness in a positive manner while your child is feeling connected and loved, you reinforce that emotions are normal and you can enhances the bond between parent and child. Exploring emotions with children from a young age is one way you can help them become more emotionally intelligent.
For more from Play-Based Learning, check out this Emotional Intelligence with the 5 Core Emotions Activity.
About Renee: Renee is passionate about providing Positive Parenting and Purposeful Play activities for children. Her goal is to combine play based learning with positive parenting. Visit Renee and you will find fun and practical activities that demonstrate how play-based learning can encourage optimal developmental in children. You can find her encouraging parents and educators to connect with children through play via her blog, Facebook or Pinterest.