Kids recreate the world how they see it through dramatic play.
Shouting is emanating from behind the closed door of my daughter’s room.
“No, Mama, don’t go!”
“I have to go to work. You have to stay here.”
My three-year-old is playing in her room by herself. I slowly open the door. Her back is facing me as she sits on the bed with her dolls.
We’ve had this exact exchange numerous times, and apparently, my daughter knows it so well that she is re-enacting our daily ritual of school drop-off with her Elsa dolls.
I enter the room and sit on the edge of the bed.
“How does the little girl feel when her mama has to leave for work?”
I ask but I already know the answer.
“Yes, but she gets to play with her friends at school.”
“Yeah, but she misses her Mama sooooo much.”
Her head is down.
Knife in my heart.
Play is a form of therapy
My daughter is using play to work out scenarios that affect her daily life. Play therapy is often used in kids between the ages of three and twelve and special therapy dolls encourage the safe expression of the child’s feelings. Therapy play is most commonly done after a trauma or life transition but all play is therapeutic in itself.
Dramatic or creative play is everywhere and everything can be turned into a helpful and fun play moment for your child.
Later in the week, after I discovered that my daughter not-so-secretly resents being abandoned at school so mommy can work, my husband had his own experience with our daughter.
They were killing time while her big brother had fun playing handball. Again, the Elsa dolls came out of the Elsa backpack, and they played on the bleachers.
Her Elsa doll ends up dying after falling into the oblivion below by their feet.
My husband’s Elsa doll grieves by crying for the fallen Elsa, to which my daughter responds,
“Don’t cry, Elsa. I’m dead. I can’t hear you.”
We’ve never spoken of death in that way (at all!) with our kids so hearing such a stark interpretation from her three-year-old lips was an eye-opener.
So much so that my husband sent me a text recap in real-time with, “Do you know what she just said to me?!”
She was right, of course, dead people can’t hear you crying, but we reassured her that it’s okay to cry even if nobody can see or hear you.
Every time we play with the Elsa dolls, I learn more and more about how my daughter perceives her world.
A chance at role reversal
My daughter is always the adult in our play scenarios, and I always play the child. I often try to make it realistic, and my Elsa doll throws tantrums of epic proportions, but to my surprise, my daughter’s impression of an adult is to punish the child for any minor infraction.
My Elsa doll laughs.
“Go to the corner, Elsa!”
My Elsa doll asks to read a book.
“Go to the corner, Elsa! Bad girl.”
There was nothing my child-Elsa doll could do that didn’t earn her some punishment of some kind.
It dawned on me that my daughter was drunk with power and punishing my doll was the most satisfying way for her to flip the tables on our power dynamic in our real relationship. She was the “adult” in the scenario, and according to her, adults could punish children at will.
Considering we rarely punish our children, and certainly not for someone asking to read a book or for laughing, I was surprised to see how quickly she went to the dark side.
There are very good reasons why three-year-olds are not in charge of other human beings.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, eh?
Despite not being a certified therapist, I was getting the sense that my daughter was experimenting with what it means to be an adult through her dolls.
So far, she’s worked out life and death scenarios, mild abandonment issues, and corporal punishment. I would’ve thought that those were heavy concepts for a three-year-old but she seems to understand them fairly well.
Encourage creative dramatic play
The experts all say to continue to play and encourage this type of role-playing in safe and supportive environments. As much as it hurts to hear your daughter replay scenarios of daily abandonment, keep playing the part.
According to Nancy Jo Hereford and Jane Schall in the book Learning Through Dramatic Play, parents can encourage this type of creative play in a few ways:
- Let the child take the lead—basically, follow their creative minds and you’ll be surprised where they take you.
- Provide time for the play to develop—kids need at least 45 minutes of uninterrupted time for a proper drama.
- Provide the place and the props to encourage their imagination.
- Insert some of their interests into play scenarios.
Listening and watching my daughter play with her dolls is an opportunity to get her side of the equation and to encourage her to understand whatever she is experiencing at the moment.
So, in short, as parents, we need to do less talking and more playing if we are going to help our kids work through large transitions (like moving houses, changing schools, etc.,), experiencing grief or loss of loved ones, or any issues that we may consider “minor” as parents but affect them on a daily basis (like pick-up and drop-off at school).
When it comes to playing with our kids, parents need to do less talking and more playing.