The Power of Play: Speaking Your Child’s Language

Have you ever wondered what your child is really trying to communicate to you? Sometime it seems as if kids have their own secret language. I was talking on the phone the other day to a good friend of mine, and her young daughter was trying to tell her something. My friend kept repeating what her child was saying, and finally she said to her sweet daughter, “I love you, but I have no idea what you are trying to tell to me.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. Parents know their children best, and even for them it can be hard to understand what kids are trying to communicate.

Younger children not only have a limited vocabulary, but they are also still learning how to express themselves. Children of all ages may struggle to identify and articulate how they are feeling, or they may not know what they want to communicate, or how to express what they want you to understand. What they do know is when they have some sort of big feeling inside of them that needs to come out.

What many parents don’t realize is that kids communicate through play. In fact, there are discernible stages of play development. I have worked with kids who come into my office having no idea how to play. This is common with early childhood trauma. It was heartbreaking the first time I witnessed it. A young boy about six years old came into my room; he sat quietly and nervously, not knowing what was expected of him. The child had been in survival mode most of his life, never having really played. And if a child has not learned how to play, then they have been deprived of being able to speak their language. Once I helped him feel confident that he had a safe place and an opportunity to discover how to play, he began to flourish and open up. This was obviously a more extreme case. Most children have some concept of play.

Playing is not only important for a child to be able to express themselves—children also learn through play. Problem-solving, decision-making, conflict resolution, social skills, coping skills, emotion regulation—so many life skills are learned through play.

And probably what is most important for a parent to keep in mind is that children bond through play. That is why I encourage parents to sit down on the floor and play with their young children. You have probably heard about “love languages.” All children have a love language of one-on-one quality time. Every child yearns for that with their parents. It helps them feel special and loved.

I realize that time is valuable. Sometimes it is hard for working parents to carve extra time out of their already busy days. Just think how much even a few minutes of your time would mean to your child, for him or her to know that they are important to you—that they are a priority. I often recommend to parents to literally schedule time with their children. Any amount of time that is feasible, whether it is fifteen minutes after dinner every weekday night or a half hour on Wednesdays. If you have multiple children you can assign a day of the week to each of them; or, if Sundays are better, set aside an hour and divide it up amongst your children. However it may look, consider scheduling a set block of time that is solely for you and your child to spend one-on-one. Allow your child to choose whatever they want to do with you during this special time (obviously within reason). Whether it is a board game or a game of horse, you will not only be creating lasting memories for your child, you will also be stimulating their brain, promoting communication, and strengthening the bond that you have with them. I suspect that you will find that your child will look forward to it and will be excited about their special time with you, and your relationship will likely grow stronger as a result.

Whatever it is that your child wants to do with you, I encourage you to see that as their attempt to teach you their language. The trick is to take the time to learn your child’s language… and then speak it.

Melaina Garrison, MS, LMFT, provides family, couple, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Melaina.