Engaging the Inner Child in Play

Our "inner child" or theirs? That's a great question. Let's start with OUR inner child, because that's all we have control over, right? Do you remember being mesmerized by a raindrop zig-zagging its way down a window? How about the fun of splashing in a puddle? As kids, we couldn't get enough of blowing bubbles, tickle games, peek-a-boo, and making faces in the mirror.

How amazing did sand feel when sprinkled on our feet when you were a child? Yet, did our parents stop us from playing this way? No, they engaged with us, and egged us on. It made us laugh and it made them proud. No, our parents didn't stop us, because maybe we were "typically developing." Maybe we were toddlers or young preschoolers. You see, kids on the spectrum, and kids with delays in language or social skills, might be playing this way still at older ages. And that's when it's no longer acceptable, no longer socially "ok." So therapists, and educators, try to help by targeting their grade/age level rather than their developmental level. If they're 8 years old, parents aren't comfortable with their self-stimulating and repetitive behaviors (e.g. staring at the rain drops dripping down the window and ignoring their requests to come sit down, lining up cars and watching the wheels spin, etc.).

Understandably these behaviors are not socially acceptable and are often misunderstood. So therapists try to help redirect them to something more acceptable, or attempt to extinguish the behavior all together. Yes, I agree it's important to teach kids to mind their manners, sit at a table, or sit still at school. But let's not forget about the other skills that are the precursors: play, social-emotional interaction, attention, reciprocity, and engagement. If we spend a little more time growing these skills, it's amazing how naturally things like expressive language and eye contact develop!

Let's explore some ideas:

1. Anticipation: Have you noticed how fun it is to watch a child's anticipation build? Put a toddler on top of a slide, say "ready, set...(pause)...go!" That pause before "go" is golden. Notice the child's eyes lock on yours, his smile growing, and his body preparing for the ensuing fun of the ride. The longer the pause, the more he anticipates. Things like eye contact, joy, communicative intent; all seem to come naturally. Try exploring play that naturally increases the child's anticipation: peek-a-boo, chase, swings, and other games. Use a countdown phrase: "1-2-3......Go!" or "3-2-1.....Blast off!" If you see an increase in eye contact, smiles, giggles, or even better, an indication of wanting a repeat of the action; you've found gold! Repeat it at least 3 times, or until you feel he's moved on or lost interest. Read his body language, don't force anything that might be uncomfortable or scary for the child. Some kids love a lot of extreme, physical and sensory-rich play; but others prefer quiet, mellow, play (e.g. slow, calm swinging with a familiar nursery rhyme or song).

*Need ideas or advice pertaining to your own child or a client, please send me a message. I'd be happy to help you brainstorm.

2. Finding more gold: Let's say you've found "gold" and your child loves being tossed onto some mats, after the build up of anticipation with "ready, set...........go!" and he's even showed he wants more by running back to you and lifting his arms to initiate the game again. You wonder how many times he'll return for more; what should you do next, because you're feeling like it's become quite repetitive? If you've repeated the activity at least 3 times, try making one small change. Depending on your child's ability to handle a change, you might try tossing him into a different landing spot, singing a song instead of "ready, set, go," or maybe even try taking a turn tossing one of his favorite stuffed animal friends. If he enjoys the change, you've found more gold! Keep it up, repeating another 3 or more times. If he loses interest or becomes frustrated with the change, it may be too big of a change, but it's worth a try.

3. Joining his world: What if your child seems to get 'stuck' or tends to "stim" a lot. Have you tried joining him? I know it's hard if you're in a public place, or just trying to get your child to eat his breakfast quickly so you can get him to school; but when possible, try taking some time to meet him right where he is. For example, imagine your child is flipping the light switch off and on repetitively. Maybe he tends to do this every morning, or even every few minutes. We can't always redirect him, and he always returns at some point. How about trying to take turns flipping the light switch on/off? Or maybe you pretend to fall asleep every time the light turns off. You can go to another switch and copy what he's doing nearby. Be creative, and see what happens? Sometimes, a child responds with joy; you've finally shown him you agree that this behavior is interesting, and he feels understood. He may even think it's funny. Other children may not even notice your attempts at first. Keep trying!

*If you're wondering if this reinforces an unacceptable behavior...well yes, but just at first. But in my opinion, if it results in your child connecting with you playfully, then it's worth it. You can use this "golden moment" and build on it. You can add that one little change we talked about above. We can find more gold. Then, the behavior we reinforced, has changed into a rewarding, playful, silly game that results in smiles, eye contact, anticipation, and maybe even words! I think the extra electricity use and annoying flashing lights might just have been worth it all.

These are just a few techniques I've learned over the years, mainly coming out of the developmental, play based approach: DIR/Floortime. If you'd like more information, ideas, examples, please don't hesitate reaching out! And remember, don't be afraid to be silly!

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