Neuroscientist, biologists, and developmental psychologists all agree that animals were created with the innate sense to play. Play is essential for the developing brain. Play forms neural networks that create a foundation for life-long learning and curiosity. Stuart Brown, M.D. founder of the National Play Institute believes that “Work is not the opposite of play. Depression is the opposite of play”. Play helps us creatively solve problems, facilitate connections, build mastery, and develop resilience. In play, we learn how to control our emotions and become less reactive to stressful situations. More and more, companies are introducing creative play as a means to push the boundaries of AI. Jobs interviews at Google and Apple often ask questions that playfully engage the interviewee in creatively problem solving. Google has adopted a playful approach to work by developing play areas that stimulate creativity.
As a Play Therapist, I use play as a way to help children and families reconnect and heal through difficult situations. Let’s take a balloon. A simple game of “Keep the Balloon off the Ground” can start parents and children laughing and talking again. Take that same balloon and have the parent and child walk together. This does two things: 1.) it builds the notion of being “in-sync” facilitating attachment, and 2.) it allows the parent and child explore and implement personal boundaries. Take that same balloon, blow it up and let it fly around the room. We can have a conversation about what it looks like when someone “flies off the handle”. Yet again, when that same balloon is used to constrict the airflow to make that funny noise, we have a discussion about what “annoying” sounds like. Finally, that same balloon can be used as a way to teach deep breathing for the parents and children. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system signaling to the brain that it is time to relax. Deep breathing is the single most important way to teach calming skills. Parents, the next time one of your children is highly reactive (anger, anxiety, fear) have them take a few breaths, wait for them to calm down and THEN talk to them about the consequences of their actions. If you do it before, it can’t seep into the pre-frontal cortex where all that good stuff needs to process.
Tracy Kristoff, MA, MFT, RPT
Marriage and Family Therapist and Registered Play Therapist.