by Kathy Eugster, MA
When children are able to play freely, they will begin to express their feelings and perspectives symbolically through the toys and play materials, and so, by understanding children’s play, adults are able to have a window into a child’s inner world.
But how can you understand your child’s play? What does it mean when your child plays aggressively with her dinosaur toys? Or when a pirate character gets pushed off the edge of the castle? What about when a house containing a family gets knocked over and destroyed? Or when a small, vulnerable character is abandoned? For parents, it can be confusing, and at times worrisome, as they watch their children play in ways that portray difficult, scary, or unhappy situations.
You can make sense of your child’s play by learning about common play themes that arise in children’s play. Play themes are themes that arise in play that are meaningful for a child. Child development researchers have identified these common and normal themes found in children’s play:
- Power and Aggression
- Danger and Safety
- Nurturance and Family
Power and Aggression
Themes in this group are characterized by aggression or assertion of power in some form. For example, a good character or team fighting against a bad character or team is very common in children’s play. Another common example would be a strong and powerful character overcoming a weaker character, who would be the victim. Here children may be experimenting with power differentials and may take on either the aggressor or victim roles. Children are learning about aggressive feelings from either role and by doing so, they are learning to manage these aggressive feelings within the safety of the play environment. What parents want to prevent in children’s play is any unsafe or destructive behaviors by children. Power and aggressive themes in children’s play are very common, normal and healthy.
Examples of common Power and Aggression themes:
- Your child sets up the good pirates to defend the fort from the attacking bad pirates; he makes the bad pirates fight the good pirates in a chaotic battle
- Your child wants to play “sword fighting” with the pool noodles against you
- Your child has the shark puppet eat the baby rabbit aggressively
- Your child tells you to be the “bad guy” and steal the treasure from her
Danger and Safety
Children frequently play out situations where a character is in danger. This is another very common type of play for children where they are experimenting with dangerous and frightening situations and feelings of fear and anxiety. In play, children are able to take control of chaotic, dangerous and scary situations to achieve safety, for example by containing or escaping the danger or by protecting or rescuing the vulnerable characters. By doing this, children learn to manage feelings of fear and anxiety, which can be very overwhelming for them.
Examples of common Danger and Safety themes:
- Your child has put the child Playmobil character all alone in a jungle with dangerous animals nearby
- Your child wants to pretend you and he are both being chased by a bear
- Your child rescues her stuffed puppy from a “trap” made from a box
- Your child puts the bad monster character in a jail made out of blocks; she then dumps more blocks on top of the monster in the jail to completely bury the monster in blocks
- Your child sets up the castle with lots of defensive strategies surrounding it such as fences, moats, guards and barricades; the king and queen are in the castle maintaining safety
Nurturance and Family
Play themes of nurturance, caring for others, and family relationships are also very common in children’s play. These play themes arise when children are experimenting with giving and receiving care, nurturance, and feelings of love and affection.
Examples of common Nurturance and Family themes:
- Your child is setting up a home for his stuffed animals; he has made beds for them and is now setting up a kitchen with a table and toy food
- Your child is making a pretend dinner for you by mixing toy food in a bowl, cooking it, and then serving it to you
- Your child has chosen a mommy, daddy, child and baby characters for a family and has put them in a car to go shopping together
- Your child has set up a zoo with adult and baby animals living together; he has included a zookeeper to feed the animals and put them in the barn at night
- Your child is wrapping up her doll in a blanket
This theme arises when children explore and learn about their world by mastering some kind of task or skill. With this theme, children are experimenting with the concepts of independence and competence, which are normal and healthy themes in child development.
Examples of common Mastery themes:
- Your child is playing indoor basketball and is trying to score points by throwing a ball into an empty garbage basket that has been placed up on a shelf
- Your child is setting up dominoes on their ends to knock over
- Your child is making a bracelet out of colored paper and tape
- Your child is playing with magnetic blocks making different things with them
How do I handle “negative” themes in my child’s play?
Sometimes, your child’s play themes may appear very negative, for example, when aggressive, scary, or unhappy play scenarios arise. These themes can be difficult for parents to observe and you may fear that this type of play is not healthy or normal. However, it’s important to remember that these themes are very normal for children in play. In this kind of play, children can learn many valuable lessons such as being able to deal appropriately with aggressive and fearful feelings.
You can make a distinction between negative, aggressive, scary, or unhappy themes in your child’s play, which would be indicated by the content of your child’s play, such as dinosaurs or teams of soldiers fighting with each other, or a vulnerable character being hurt by a powerful character, and aggressive or unsafe behaviors by your child, such as throwing a hard object or hitting you hard in play.
If it is the themes or content of the play that is negative, aggressive, or scary and no one is getting hurt or nothing is getting broken, you can choose to use Child-Directed Playtime strategies and allow your child to play out these themes while you use your empathy skills to acknowledge what is happening in the play. Generally, these negative themes will change gradually to more positive themes as your child learns and begins to understand the situation better. If your child starts to engage in any unsafe or destructive behaviors, you would however, stop these behaviors immediately.
- Your child sets up a play scenario where the “good” dinosaurs are defending their home from the attacking “bad” dinosaurs. He makes the dinosaurs fight a chaotic battle against each other, however, things stay safe and non-destructive and he is not hitting, throwing toys, or damaging anything.
- You would neutrally describe what is happening by saying something like, “Looks like those dinosaurs are hiding behind that fence … oh-oh, the bad dinosaurs are sneaking around the back … now the good dinosaurs are noticing the bad dinosaurs … oh, that dinosaur got knocked over … and that dinosaur is stomping on the other one.”
- You would also identify any feelings coming up by saying something like, “Those dinosaurs look very angry … that dinosaur looks scared … those dinosaurs seem nervous now … those dinosaurs are very happy now; they’re celebrating.”
- You would paraphrase what your child is telling you.
- You would refrain from asking questions to your child.
- If your child’s behaviors become unsafe or destructive, for example, your child starts to throw the dinosaurs, you would “jump in” and stop that behavior by saying something like, “Throwing toys is not allowed. No throwing the dinosaurs. Keep them on the ground when they are fighting.”
- Your child wants to play superheroes with you. She says she will be the superhero and protect others from you, the monster.
- You would set up some basic safety rules to start, for example, identifying a “time out” word that is to be respected by both parent and child, and reminding your child there is to be no hurting and that this is just pretend play.
- You would follow your child’s directions and act out your role as the monster the way your child wants as long as it is safe and non-destructive. If you are unclear of what to do, get your child to tell you exactly what she wants you to do.
- You could try exaggerating your feelings in a comical, but not frightening, manner, for example pretending to be angry or incompetent, but do this only if your child accepts it.
- Remember not to be overly powerful or competitive. It’s okay to lose your power gradually! Often, children like it when their parents pretend to be weak and powerless.
- If your child’s behaviors become unsafe or destructive, for example, your child starts to hit you or throw things at you, you would “jump in” and limit those behaviors by saying something like, “No hitting! No throwing hard things! Remember we said that this is just pretend play. If you want, you can throw these foam balls at me.”
Final Points to Consider:
If the content of your child’s play continues to be very negative, aggressive, or scary, you can choose to “jump in” and use Parent-Directed Playtime strategies to support your child in learning new skills to manage difficult feelings and situations. Please see the article on this website, Structured Imaginary Playtime, which describes this parent-directed style of play.
If you notice your child’s play consists only of violent or disturbing themes with consistently negative outcomes, this could be a sign for you to seek professional help from a play therapist, child psychologist, family doctor or pediatrician.
Here are some questions for you to think about:
- What play themes are you noticing coming up for your child?
- What feelings are being expressed during these themes?
- Are these themes related to what is happening for your child in real life?
Identifying your child’s play themes can be very interesting and rewarding. You are beginning to get a better understanding of your child’s inner world, which means you will be connecting on a deeper level.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2022.
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