4 Play Strategies to Teach Your Preschooler Critical Skills

WARNING: This is a long and somewhat technical post. Grab a coffee. Read some and take breaks as needed. This post will be here as you are ready to return. Happy reading!

Kids natural form of communication is play and while most parents have the general skills to play with their kids, there is a form of play that has the capacity to teach your kids about their feelings, help them learn how to solve problems, and teach them social skills, all while making your relationship with them even stronger and reducing behavioral problems. It is called Child Focused Play.

Using the 4 skills below can have many benefits. At first practicing these skills may feel odd and different. It takes time to get used to talking and playing in this way, but once you get the hang of it, it should start to feel natural.

There are a few goals for these play sessions. They should be scheduled at a time when you can have as little distraction as possible. Plan it for times when you feel comfortable leaving your phone in another room, you have someone who can watch your other kids, and you aren’t going to have any predictable interruptions.

These play times should last around 30-45 minutes and your goal is to have them 2-3 times a week if possible. More is great. If you only have time for 1, that is okay too.

Now, here are the skills:

1. Shaping

This strategy doesn’t get used as much during the play, but it is still very important. It is all about shaping the play session in your child’s eyes. It is like building the foundation of a house, all of the other skills are going to be built upon this.

There are few main points to this skill:

  • Location
    Picking a room or even just laying down a large blanket to be the place where the play time occurs is important. I use my therapy room during these times so kids know that this play time takes place in the room and they should not open the door and leave until it is time. If you use a blanket, they and you should remain in that space during the play time.
  • Play time toys
    The toys you use during this time should only come out during these play times. Regarding toy selection, variety is key. Your play kit could include: A doll house, some dolls, a medicine kit, sand, playdough, coloring supplies, puppets, dress up stuff, a bop bag. I will have a future post to talk about the toys I use in my therapy room with tips on where to buy or how to build them.
  • Introduction
    Every time you begin this play time, let your child know that this is going to be a special play time so they are aware that it is going to be different than other times when you might play; meaning the rules and how you talk with them may be different .
    I usually use a script at the beginning that sounds something like: “Johnny, this is going to be a special play time. During this time, you can think anything you want, feel anything you want, and say and do almost anything you want.” – Then we enter the space for the play time.
  • Time warnings
    I always give a 5 minute then a 1 minute warning to let children know that the special play time is about to end. A typical play time may go anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes depending on the child’s ability to maintain attention and play.
    A couple notes around ending these play sessions. Once play is over, I pick up the toys. Clean-up is the full responsibility of the parent for these play times. Additionally, there is no extra time. If kids decide they want to help clean up, they have to choose to do that during their time. Once time is up, they should not help clean up and should not continue playing with the toys.
    This type of play can be very taxing on kids, so many times after 30-45 minutes they will be tired and ready to be done.

2. Observation

This is where you are going to become like a sports announcer. If you have not watched much sports on television, I would like you to take a minute and open a broadcast of a basketball game. Listen to how the announcer says exactly what the players are doing. This is the skill you are going to use in your play times. There are two types of observations you will make:

  • Observation of Doing
    You will observe specifically what your child is doing and just say it out loud. It might sound like this:
    1. “you are putting that red block on top of the blue block.”
    2. “That elephant is jumping on the bear.”
    3. “You knocked the blocks down.”
  • Observation of Feeling
    This is the type of observation I want you to make more often. Your focusing on what your child is Feeling. Pay attention to their facial and verbal cues as they play then reflect how you think they are feeling. It might sound like this:
    1. “You feel happy when you stack blocks.” Or “You are so proud of how high you can stack blocks.”
    2. “That bear is sad that it is getting jumped on.” Or “The elephant is so mad at the bear.”
    3. “You feel frustrated when the blocks fall down.” Or “You like when you make the blocks fall down, it makes you laugh.”

Observations will be the main focus of your play time with your child. There are a couple points to follow during this time:

Rule 1:
You don’t ask any questions during the play. This includes statements that sound like questions. (listen for inflection at the end of your sentence). A statement as a question might sound like: “you like it when the blocks fall down?”
Many parents struggled with this, but once you get the hang of it and become more aware of what you are saying, it will become second nature.

Rule 2:
You aren’t allowed to suggest what they should do and want to avoid suggesting what they might do. You strictly want to pay attention to what they are doing right now and what they are feeling at this moment.
As an example, if I were to notice a child walking towards the blocks. I might be tempted to observe “you want to play with the blocks,” however if they have not touched them yet that may not be true. Maybe they were going to play with something else in that same area, but now they might think they should play with blocks. Alternatively, I might just stay quiet and wait or say, “You want something over there” or “you are looking for something over there.”

3. Imaginary Play

Most parents are naturals at this form of play. If you are not a natural at this, no worries, follow the steps below and you will pick it up in no time.

During these play times you should avoid interjecting yourself into the play unless they invite you in. When your child pulls you into their play, you just start playing like you think they want you to.

An example:

  • During play I might notice a child is picking up a medical kit, so I say, “Johnny, you are grabbing the medical kit.” (Observation of Doing)
  • Johnny says: “Yep, I am going to give you a shot.” (He has now invited me into the play)
  • My Thinking: We are stepping out of observation and into Imaginary play.
  • I start pretending like I am a patient about to get a shot. “I sure hope this doesn’t hurt.”
  • Johnny: “It is probably going to hurt. A lot.”
  • Me: “oh no… I am a little worried.”
  • It continues from there.

The main focus here is that you should play how they want you to play. If Johnny had said the shot was not going to hurt. I would not have kept pretending I was worried. I would have been calm and ready for the shot because that is the play he was wanting.

Once you enter Imaginary Play, you can stop observation until they move on to something else which could mean you pull back to observation or they invite you into another play so you continue with the imaginary play skill.

**Whisper Technique** If they invite you into imaginary play and you have no idea what to do. You can do the Whisper Technique. In a whisper voice ask them, “what would you like me to do?” Then re-enter into imaginary play and play as they suggest.

4. Setting Boundaries

There are few boundaries or limits during this play time. Kids really can say and do almost anything. There are of course some things you don’t want them to do and those things generally fall in line with not hurting others, themselves, or property. Most other things are permitted within your comfort zone.

A personal example around comfort. In my playroom I have a pair of pretend handcuffs and many times kid will want to use the handcuffs on me. I allow that, but I do not like my hands being behind my back in the event a ball gets thrown at my face and I cannot protect myself, so I set a boundary. I tell them, “you may not handcuff my hands behind my back, but you can handcuff my hands in front of me.” Most kids accept this and move on.

When setting boundaries, the general rule of thumb is you want to leave it open for them to choose something else. In the example above I gave the alternative for them to handcuff my hands in front of me. Below you will notice I leave it open by telling them they can “do almost anything else.”

When they do breach a boundary, there is a 3-warning method that goes as follows:

  • First Warning
    First time they engage in that behavior (each boundary is treated separately). I tell them, “One of the rules during our special play time is X (i.e. you may not hit me, you may not color on the walls, etc.). You can do almost anything else.” The purpose here is to let them know that this is a boundary and remind them they have other choices.
    Additionally, boundaries reset each play session. If they haven’t done it during this play time yet, you will almost always start at the first warning. If it has been several play times and you have set this boundary many times you can then start at warning number 2.
  • 2nd Warning
    The second time they engage in a behavior that you have already given a warning about, say “Remember you may not do X during our special play time, if you do X again, we will have to end our special play time for today. You can do almost anything else.”
    The purpose here is to let them know what the consequence will be if they choose to continue with the behavior.
  • 3rd Warning
    On the rare occassion they do the behavior again after you have given 2 warnings, then you enforce the limit and end special play time.
    The importance here is to understand if you set a boundary and say what the consequence will be that it will be enforced. Even if they apologize or say it was an accident, the play time is over. Just let them know you all will be able to try again at their next play time.

That’s it. 4 play skills that will help child build emotional identification and regulation skills, problem solving skills, social skills, and to build a stronger relationship between them and their parents. Have a play session like this twice or three times a week for about 30-45 minutes and you should start noticing changes soon.

It is important to note, that I usually teach these skills over a period of about 12-15, 1 hour sessions with parents. There can be many nuances and situations that can arise where you aren’t sure how to respond or what to do. If I wrote about each of those, this post would turn into a book.

**For kids who you suspect may have conditions like ADHD or anxiety, I recommend having a therapist help you with deciding the best course of therapy. If they decide Child Centered Play Therapy or Filial Therapy would be beneficial, they can help you with how to specifically implement these skills in your family.

If you would like more individualized work on how to use these skills at home, I would be happy to help. Please call me at 513-646-9708 or email me at [email protected].