PLAY ON! How Playing With Our Children Can Be a Resilience Building Tool

By Paula M. Toledo, Founder of Ode to Wonder/SocialWell Collective, Canadian Mental Health Advisor for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. 

Montreal, Canada

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Sometimes as parents, we can look at our children as if they are little alien creatures, crying and screaming, seemingly out of nowhere. The tears, the anger, the flailing on the ground are unsettling. As parents, we are often left scratching our heads, wondering how to navigate their emotional rollercoasters. How do we help them through these troubled feelings?


I had the great fortune of working with a play therapist, who helped guide my sons and I through the tragic loss of their father when they were 2 weeks old and 2 years old. Over the years, she encouraged me to play with my children to get insight into what was happening in their inner emotional world and help them through their loss. The idea being, that by being present with them, by witnessing them through their play, I could teach them about the depth of their feelings. Children need the support of parents and caregivers to teach them how to identify and label their emotions. By giving them a rich emotional vocabulary, we can empower them to use their words. Validating our children’s feelings, empathizing with them, and teaching them resources to release difficult feelings from their body, are resilience building tools. 

As a parent, mental health advocate and advisor, I learned the invaluable way that play can connect and promote mental well-being. Play has the power to nurture loving relationships and can be a tool to lean on when the going gets tough. 

As our children get older, we forget the basics. We forget how we once use to engage and play with our babies for hours on end. Following are some helpful reminders and tips on how to use play to build healthy relationships with our love ones:  

1. FAMILY PLAYTIME

We add up our calories, the number of steps we take in a day, even the amount of time we are on screens, but we don’t add up the time that we spend playing with our children. 

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When play is frivolous, evokes imagination, a presence of engagement…when the world around you seems to stop, then we know we are truly playing. (Running your children to activities led by another adult like a coach or instructor does not count as family playtime). 


As we do with everything that we prioritize, whether it be managing finances, diets, etc..start by physically tracking the amount of minutes you put towards true family playtime. After a week, you will note how much playtime has accumulated and at that point, you can make a decision on how much playtime is important to you and your family. Just as couples in healthy marriages schedule date night, you can begin scheduling family playtime into your lives. 

2. ENTER THEIR WORLD

When it is time to play, make sure you enter into their world. In our home, often a cue that signals that my children are craving play, is when I hear them saying, “Mom, I want to show you something…” or “Mom, which would you rather…” My eldest son likes to show me things he has created, while my younger son loves to stimulate my participation in his world via imaginary scenarios. In both cases, they are welcoming me to play with them. 

3. WITNESS THEIR PLAY

Once you enter their world and begin playing with them, the next step is to witness their stories. 

  • State an observation: 

“Wow, your structure is very colourful and bold. I can see you worked hard to build this intricate building.” 

  • Stay curious: 

“I wonder what it does exactly, can you tell me more? How did you come up with the idea?”

  • Punctuate feelings: 

“You said you were confused on how to fit in the last pieces of lego. Yes, not knowing where the pieces go can make you feel confused. And sometimes, we can feel frustrated when we don’t understand a problem. Did you feel frustrated? But you succeeded despite being confused, how did that make you feel?” (Child responds, ‘Happy!’). “Yes, you feel happy, I can understand that! And maybe you also feel pleased with yourself, you feel proud, and maybe you even feel satisfied?” 


4. ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES

The icing on the cake for children is when parents roll up their sleeves and get right in there with their play. My children are happiest when I am engaging in the same way they are. Parent participation creates the best and safest possible environment for children to explore and push their creative boundaries. It also shows them that they are supported for using their imaginations and skills. And lastly it fosters empathy and connection in a way that passively watching our children play does not. 

Remember as Jesse Jackson once said, “Your children need your presence more than your presents.”


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About the Author

Paula M. Toledo is a TEDx/WE Day Speaker, Writer & Artist. She is Founder of SocialWell Collective and Ode to Wonder a blog that documents the Wonder she experienced despite suffering grief through the tragic loss of her husband to his mental illness and suicide - her sons were just 2 weeks and 2 years old. www.paulamtoledo.com and www.odetowonder.com