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  • Naomi Sukenik

Playworking and Parenting

Updated: May 19, 2019

My Kiddos: Tom, Leeor and Leila (Story is about Leeor and Leila)


Playwork VS Parenting moment

It was one of those days when I was reading a lot about playwork. I find myself reading and rereading and understanding things differently as time goes on. My daughter has been learning a lot about play scenarios too. She will be 5 in two months. She is learning how to cope with being excluded and “lied” to. She says dramatically: “First she said she was going to be my best friend and then she said she won’t- that’s lying” she says to me, obviously very hurt and not understanding why this is happening to her. I knew she was trying to work this out because I heard her say to her little sister: “lets be best friends, actually we aren’t best friends.” Leeor is playing with the idea of what it feels like to be the one saying that. As a playworker, the best thing for me to do is let her play that scene out till she is able to understand it more or not- just to support her play. As a mom, I might see this as a teaching moment and say: “remember how you felt when someone said that to you? Did you like it? No? Well, how do you think your sister feels when you say it to her?” After reflecting on this the true answer to that question is her little sister, Leila does not completely understand what her motives are, she is only two.

The other thing I have noticed is that my almost 5-year-old does not yet think about other people’s feelings- her emotions, needs and desires completely guide her whether someone else needs, wants or feels are something different. So, my mom “teaching” moment is in vain.

Lets dig deeper into this scenario.

Usually at the age of 4, Theory of Mind is developed. This theory discusses that a child can understand that other people have thoughts, desires and intentions that differ from their own. It also is used to predict or explain action and to posit their intentions. It is closely related to empathy which is described as the understanding of states of mind of others, including beliefs and desires but mostly emotions. While empathy relates to understanding emotional perspective of someone else, theory of mind relates to understanding the cognitive perspective of someone else.

In an example of how Leeor still hasn’t developed theory of mind she threatened that: “I won’t play or make friends if you don’t buy me the princess shoes I want”. I will not buy her princess shoes anyway. I don’t like branding but that’s for another discussion. The point is that she threatened me with something that essentially make her feel bad – not playing or having friends. Not me. So, if I’m right then, her threat is a direct example how she only sees her own emotions, thoughts and interests. The other possible understanding of this statement is that she IS aware that I want her to play and have friends and be happy so her threatening me that she won’t do it could be a sign of the beginning stages of a developing theory of mind. Either way, the threat hurts her way more than me showing that she isn’t quite there yet.

Now back to the play topic and understanding events through play. Play can be therapeutic. When children play out painful experiences in their fantasy play, they come to terms with their own feelings, and those of other people. As a result, they learn to manage their emotions more effectively. Axline, a physchoanalytic therapist suggests that: “the process is more fundamental- such a natural thing that children who are given unrestricted opportunity to play in a richly equipped play room (with a non- threatening adult) are capable of solving their own emotional problems”.

Bettleheim says: “play permits the child to resolve in symbolic form unsolved problems of the past and to cope directly or symbolically with present concerns. It is also his most significant tool for preparing himself for the future and its tasks. “

Understanding Eva (fake name) My Leeor is now dealing with Eva at school who is still in the process of understanding friendships and hierarchies. She is not yet four. She threatens not to be best friends, or not be invited to her party (which doesn’t exist according to mom), and sometimes even excluding remarks like let’s move away from her. These things are very hurtful for Leeor and that’s why she plays out the scenario with her little sister. She isn’t playing herself in these moments she is playing Eva who is saying the “mean” things. She is trying to taste what this feels like. Hopefully, by doing this she will understand that the other girl needs to be in control of her friend situation. I assume this because when I went to pick up the girls at the end of the day Leeor runs to me and tells me that Eva said: Let’s move away from Leeor”. I noticed that Leeor was standing with a group of girls behind her, supporting her while Eva stood alone and worried. Most likely Eva is feeling insecure and is possibly feeling excluded from a group that she wants to be a part of and doesn’t quite know how to be included. The only way she knows how to own being alone is to be in control of her loneliness. My daughter has been playing this game now for over a week with her younger sister. Leeor eventually invited the other girl to play and now they are “best friends”. This idea of best friends is one I see this age group dealing with quite a bit. Supporting their play would be effective in this situation. A playworker might notice these dynamics and might engage Eva in a positive play scenario that Leeor and others would want to join and then carefully step away when the play flow began.

About Leeor’s “late: development. Am I worried that my 5 year old hasn’t yet developed this “theory of mind”? Not yet, milestones are supposed to be a guideline and not all children meet their milestones on the date they are supposed to. I see movement towards signs of empathy and understanding others so that’s a good start and I expect to see this continue to develop as she gets older and has more open-ended play experiences.

How do I protect Leeor’s younger sister through this play it out method? Just because she doesn’t quite understand that Leeor won’t be her best friend, she still understands her demeaner and can hear the connotation in her voice. The little one does understand some of it. I have also noticed that even my two-year-old can defend herself. She begins to talk in a louder voice, she makes a pouty face and crosses her arms disapprovingly. Leila is showing Leeor that she is not happy. Do I need to intervene? Not yet. When you think you must intervene, wait another moment and see what happens. Trust your children that they can resolve conflicts without you. Let them try. I think what the benefits for Leeor versus the risks for Leila are and decide which one outweighs the other. If Leila would come to me inviting me to help or get support, then I’d be there in a moment’s notice to support both of them in this play process.

However, being able to interpret these situations sometimes only come in retrospect and that’s ok because we are learning for the next time and the time after that. But a key aspect of playworking is reflection. I ask myself questions: What did Leeor do? What was she trying to accomplish? What is my role in this or do I even have a role? How does my reaction or lack thereof support them or not? As long as we are thinking about our reactions then we already deserve a pat on the back because raising kids is hard and trying and exhausting but also rewarding.

IN this story I spoke about how a child can use play to work through a problem, how the younger sister learns how to take care of herself and try to resolve the conflict on her own, how stepping back, not interfering and reflecting is sometimes the best scenario.

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Copyright 2019 PlayAdventures  - Naomi Sukenik