Play Therapy

| 1 Comment

I am a parent in a middle class suburban world. I am flooded daily with discussions, articles, studies, internet memes, and prayers about the huge amount of stress and expectations in the lives of children today and their resulting anxiety issues.

I have anxious children. Two of my kids cried and clung to my husband or I  at every birthday party until they were nine. It makes no sense, nothing bad has ever happened at a birthday party. They’ve never been lost or forgotten. I don’t even think a paper cut or unwanted pictures have happened. We have always made it clear they never have to participate in an activity they don’t want to do, just go and watch, support and celebrate their friend, and wait for the cake, and that is what they generally chose to do, just sit on the sideline and watch. It  happened at places with their favorite activities that they beg to go on other days, and it happened for parties hosted at a best friend’s house that they’ve been to maybe a hundred times with only two other guests that were friends they knew and enjoyed. It just happened. It’s gone now (though they still opt not to go to some parties that are super active), but none of us could ever figure out why it happened. But that’s how anxiety works sometimes. That’s part of it, it’s not rational or it would be easier to control.

None of my kids like new activities or new places. Two of my kids scream and cry before something new and then might be fine when they get there, and one is usually fine until we get there and then becomes definitely NOT fine. Pretty much with any new thing, even at the ages of 11, 9 and 7, something as benign as a new ice cream store might bring about enough high anxiety that they’ll choose to sit in the car and not have a cup of plain vanilla brought to them. Sometimes it pops up with old things too.


Personally, I don’t like new things much either, so I get it. It’s rare we ever force the kids into something big. Sometimes we might make them go/see/try, but allow the option to leave/stop/step back. On a nature blog I read someone uses a “15 minute rule.” If the kid isn’t into a hike, they say “give it 15 minutes and if you don’t want to do it, we’ll turn back,” (this is a similar theory for those who exercise regularly!) and it almost always works out that they don’t turn back. This wouldn’t work with my kids, they’d watch the clock, or start counting to 60 15 times and let me know when time was up and it was time to leave.

It’s tiring. I give up a lot. I don’t plan activities or events or outings if all three (or sometimes two) kids are really pushing back because I know they’ll be miserable, not able to turn their minds around and no one will enjoy it.  I try to talk about something new just enough for them to wrap their heads around the concept, but not enough they start to overthink it. Now that the kids are old enough for internet research, we look at pictures (the visuals really help them prepare for what to expect) and read reviews online sometimes when planning, give a few choices of the least scary new thing to try, and sometimes just have to say “This is going to happen, get over it.” (And these plans can be as fun and simple as trying a new playground, movie theater or restaurant!)


One thing that is really awesome about my kids is that they are naturally masters of play therapy. They always have been. They have all always tended towards role playing toys (playing with dolls, dollhouse, figurines, Lego Minifigures and stuffed animals). They very very rarely play sports in their free time; no one has ever cared about trains or cars; Legos or construction toys are generally only for building the scenery for their Lego Minifigures or dollhouse people. My girls like arts and crafts well enough, but when given the choice and time to play, they always go back to role play.

My grandfather suffered from a head trauma in the year before he died. He couldn’t open his eye lids, but they could be taped up one at a time for short amounts of time allowing him to see. The kids and I visited him in the nursing home a handful of times. When we came back after the first time, my girls found the tired looking, eyes half shut, light blue, 8 inch Sleepy Care Bear stuffed animal handed down from my nephew and  renamed him “Papa Joe.” My girls, preschoolers at the time, took good care of him. They carried him around, talked to him, propped him up so he could watch them play and covered him up for bed and naps. When my grandfather died, the Bear was renamed “Dead Papa Joe,” and their relationship didn’t really change much. I would  walk in to find my little girls doing things with Dead Papa Joe- fashioning a shoe box decorated in marker and stickers into a casket for him (he had many caskets), laying him on the top bunk and calling it Heaven, or just carrying him around telling him that he was dead now. It totally FREAKED OUT my husband. But anytime I wanted to explain more about death to them, I could just jump right into the game and start talking to the Care Bear about death. Sometimes my girls would just listen, sometimes they would agree or test out some theories, and sometimes they would feel comfortable asking questions as part of the game, being the voice of Dead Papa Joe, or someone talking to Dead Papa Joe, that they may not have felt comfortable (or maybe even know they wanted to ask) otherwise.

(Probably because they are too anxious to get involved in many extra curricular activities) my kids have plenty of time to play together. I realize I’m lucky that my kids have this outlet to work through things they need to work through on their own pace and time. And to work through, test out and practice handling situations, gain confidence and ask questions in a way that feels safe and not risky for them.


You may have been introduced to “The Big House” in my previous posts ( This is a large network of extended family, friends and neighbors that have lived, grown and evolved in our house over the past few years. There is a well known network of relationships, personalities and history that has been kept up and maintained with a large set of Lego Minifigures. (We have a similar dollhouse and homemade Paper Doll families here as well, but on a smaller scale.) The goings on of The Big House are tracked and monitored and reported to everyone in the house. There is literally talk about what went on that day in The Big House, or something funny someone said or did in The Big House as a regular part of dinner conversation. By now, we know them so well, they really do feel like friends. My kids often start conversations with something like “You’ll never believe what Boo said yesterday,” and be talking about a Lego. [Boo, by the way, is a well known trouble maker, they often try to toss in the path of the vacuum hoping she will be whisked away forever and they won’t have to deal with her antics (yes, they are even tortured in their imaginations).]

The Big House world is so involved and evolved that The Big House has it’s own (imaginary) TV show that everyone in Big House land stops and watches when a new episode premiers. If you know my family well, you can probably sing the theme song. There are special Minifigure stars who sometimes hold separate concerts, full length feature films, or are celebrity spotted around town. This past December, there was a holiday special that had premiered a new dance number that became quite the rage in Big House land (and by my kids in our family room) for a few weeks.

The Big House network at this point (a few years in) has likely been through or currently includes every configuration of families you could think of – adoptions, same sex marriages, mixed religion families, handicaps, parents deployed in the military, divorces, single parents, remarriages, kids being raised by grandparents, aunts, and neighbors, children who have passed away, multifamily homes, and on and on. There have been weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, fights, pregnancies and births, deaths, arrests, allergic reactions, construction, camps, shopping trips, doctor’s appointments, surgeries, hair cuts, makeovers, dinners at the mayor’s house, camping, changes in co-habitation, new neighbors, new jobs, concerts, science fairs (prepared for weeks), sporting events, holidays, vacations and on and on. My kids make chore charts, report cards, Christmas cards, and iMovies. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them had a tax audit.

But over half of all Big House time is spent in school. There are so many kids in Big House family world that they can fill a whole classroom with relatives, which is convenient. We know their personalities and even their learning styles so well, they conveniently fills the role that any problem that may appear in my kids’ real world can be played out in Big House world. And if not, a new kid moves to town or is adopted.

Last year there was a string of robberies in the Big House school, a few days after it started I got a call from one of my kids’ teachers that another student had been stealing things from my daughter’s desk and backpack. My daughter had never mentioned it, but I should have guessed.


I find this is more supportive evidence that kids can learn through play. I see it coaching sports (less is often more sort of thing – the more time kids have to just play on their own terms, taking their own risks, repeating actions, seeing different scenarios, watching their friends, having experiences drills and spoken instruction can’t give, the better they get). I see it similarly through my daughter’s Destination Imagination team (where kids work as a team parents aren’t allowed to help). Mostly I see it through my kids working through their own anxieties and problems. They play and replay their scenarios (“Okay, now, let’s do it where she said this instead at the beginning.”)

My kids have role play. Some other kids may be able to work through and vent their daily stress through physical activities. Maybe others can pour themselves into music, art, books, or just being outside or alone or with someone. But I have to think all kids (and probably some grownups?) need something, even if it’s a good night’s sleep, ice cream break or a long walk.

This week in the Big House, school is in session.  My daughters usually play Big House together, but my older daughter had left for school, and my middle daughter continued to play by herself this morning. I could hear her yelling, “”NO! YOU MAY NOT GET UP FOR WATER!” as I was getting my son’s breakfast ready. My middle daughter called me in to the family room to tell me  what was going on today in the Big House. There is a student teacher visiting for the week that no one likes. “Today she got sent to feed the classroom animals and water the school garden, even though it’s usually a kid’s chore, because no one wanted her in the room anymore.” The Big House main characters are following suit to their personality – the renowned trouble maker, Boo, had to sweep as a punishment and the behaved kids were being good. They happened to have a substitute teacher, who my daughter told me a bunch about. We’ll just say the sub was not very nice. Here is how my daughter left the Legos when she went to school – the sub is “criticizing the kids’ backpacks.”


Yesterday morning, on the way out the door to the bus, out of no where my daughter suddenly started crying that she didn’t want to go to school. She had no reason other than she really didn’t want to go. I told her she could stay home, but she decided to go. Today, after time spent talking to and working things out with her friends in the The Big House, when she was getting her shoes on and heading out the door she was much happier and said, “[My teacher] has a meeting this morning so we are having a sub again today. We had one yesterday too, and she was really mean.”

I should have known.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Facebook Pinterest Plusone Twitter Email

One Comment

  1. Love this!

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.