Emotional processing through play

In a time of emotional uncertainty and global fear, it’s important we take a moment to step back and notice the impact on our children’s emotional well-being. We need to be mindful of the ways in which these societal concerns are seen, heard, acknowledged and processed by the children around us. We believe, particularly in times of stress, adults need to remember and recognise that play can be a very powerful tool in helping children process, understand and manage big feelings about situations that cause them fear, anxiety and uncertainty.

Children notice much more than we often give them credit for. They hear the conversations of the adults surrounding them, they are exposed to news feeds, radio broadcasts and television news stories. Even if we try our best not to have conversations around children and to turn off the television when children are around, they witness the anxiety, the confusion and the uncertainty in our bodies and they perceive the subtle nuances of our adult-brain’s emotional reactions to current situations. We can try to shield children from these updates on the current position of world issues but when we experience something like the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes almost impossible to prevent them from being a part of it all. This pandemic is currently flooding our television screens, our social media feeds, our conversations and even our visual surroundings with hand washing warning signs and notices that have been posted at every turn. Our children are a part of this current crisis and we need to acknowledge their part in it.

In these times we are reminded of the power of play as a universal tool for emotional processing. At a recent Bush Inventors’ Club (after school program) session, the mentors observed the children playing out their understanding of the current world crisis.

On this particular afternoon a whole group of children who had set up bases, cubby houses and shelters with hammocks started to bring new elements into their play. Children interacted with sticks in new ways – not as weapons and physical representations of protection, as is often the case. Their sticks became ‘test kits’ for the COVID-19 virus. They became a tool to protect their base and tribe from potential virus harbouring threats. They set up boundaries to their shelters and when a child from a neighbouring tribe came towards them, they would be requested to ‘blow into the stick’ and then both children waited for the test results. The holder of the ‘test kit’ stick then gave the results. A negative result would mean they could enter the shelter, but a positive test result meant they were denied entry; they were isolated and banned from the neighbour’s shelter.

The recollection of this play may seem extreme. Perhaps you may feel this type of play is verging on a form of exclusion, or that the expected reaction from those children who were ‘presented with a positive test result’ to be one of hurt, sadness or anger. This was not the case. A positive test result was responded to by the child with an acceptance of their fate. They moved away and tried again after a period of isolation (a few moments at the most). Their reaction was similar to when their play involves pretend wars and they are unsuccessful in the battle or are discovered when trying to sneak into an opposition’s base. As Playworkers observing and gently participating in this play, continual analysis of play and monitoring children’s interactions and subtle input was at the forefront of each staff members’ mind.

During this play, our Playworkers observed rich language and communication of understanding of the current situation. The children were ‘talking the talk’, so to speak. They were using terminology that had come from conversations about the virus, they were bringing their own personal experience and understanding to the play and were co-constructing understanding – correcting each other when information was incorrect or supplementing information when pieces were missing. The turning cogs were palpable, especially in the micro-moments where play would pause for a clarification when large chunks of information were missing.

This one story has not been our only experience of observing emotional processing. Over the past few weeks, the children at our Bush Inventors Club After School program have been playing out various scenarios relating to COVID-19. They’ve been trying to unpack what it all means to them and what it all means to the world. It has reminded us as Playworkers and Mentors of the power of play and the importance of allowing time and space to act out and process these big feelings. In doing so, it can bring understanding of the world in a safe and supported environment where the stakes are not so high.

“Children use play to re-create [the] world and model the social behaviour they see in it. In this way they can experience the world without risking the consequences.” – Toye & Prendiville

We are also reminded of the importance of multi-aged groups, where children of a variety of ages have an opportunity to come together to explore concepts and scenarios as a group.

At this point, it’s important to note there is a time for protective interruption in the form of creative diversion. Each child brings their own experiences to the game and it’s important to keep an eye on body language, facial expression and tone of voice during these games that surround sensitive play themes. The role of the Playworker in these times is to be a voice for those who are reaching their boundaries and haven’t yet developed the skills for removing themselves from play when it doesn’t serve them anymore. It’s a delicate balance to find the line in these instances, but an incredibly important part of the role of a Playworker.

As adults we turn to our friends and colleagues, our family members and peers to process emotional changes, the uncertainty and anxiety we feel in times of change. We use cognitive reasoning to understand our situation and make decisions for the future. Children haven’t yet developed these same skills. However, what children do have is the gift of play. The power of play helps children process their understanding of what is happening in their lives. Through play, children develop an understanding of the concepts they observe, hear and experience – mentally, physically and emotionally.  It is through this play children have the opportunity to ‘play out’ scenarios and experiences as a way of processing their emotional responses.

So, as we forge on through the coming months, we remind parents and educators of the importance of allowing time for play to process, play to understand and of course play for play’s sake. We remind you to keep an eye out for this play in your children’s lives, keep an ear out and even find times when it’s appropriate to join in this play with your children.

Toye, N., & Prendiville, F. (2013). Drama and traditional story for the early years. New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.