As I walk downstairs, I can hear play-gunfire coming from my 7-year-old son. I enter the living room and look down at the battlefield before me. Lines of toy soldiers are set up on opposing sides, and there are military vehicles, weapons and fallen soldiers. My son is muttering a narrative to himself about the baddies being defeated by the goodies. I sidestep into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
This type of play happens quite often in our house, particularly at the moment. Had I not given it careful thought, I could easily have led myself down a path of intense worry about my son’s choice of activity. I could have been critical of myself for allowing such violent play. However, I did not do this. Instead, I took my tea and sat nearby to observe his play, because play, in all its forms, and in these exceptionally trying times, is essential for our children.
In the 25 years I’ve been supporting children and families in my work, conflict play has been a subject that’s been frequently misunderstood, often with good, well-intentioned reasoning. We don’t want to encourage violence in our children and we certainly don’t want anyone to get hurt during play. For me, this would be a cause for concern. But most children know the boundaries of their play. They know what is right and wrong and, as scary as it can feel, we need to trust them to use the medium of play to be able to make sense of the world around them. Our privileged role as the adult is to hold space for them to do this safely.
Conflict can appear in all types of play, and it’s not always related to big world events. Sometimes it arises after a falling out with a friend, sometimes it’s about inner conflict, and sometimes it’s a part of play simply because conflict and conflict resolution are part of what it is to be human. Here are some different types of play in which we might see conflict arise.
Small world play
In small world play, a child might play alone or with others using small figures – of people or animals, for example. There can be a spoken narrative that goes along with this play, and if children are playing together, you might hear, ‘You say this…, and then I’ll say this….’
Small world play is interesting to observe because it often tells a story or mirrors things we recognise from our everyday lives. You might even see a character in the game that is remarkably like you!
Notice in this play how conflict emerges and how your child plays through it. What are the strategies they use? Does the conflict get resolved? You might find that your child repeatedly returns to the same game over a few weeks or longer. This is common in children’s play, and it is likely to be because they still have something unresolved that they are working through. Sometimes, when a child has finished their game and has worked through an issue, you hear them let out a sigh of relief because they have made sense of something that has been bothering them.
Conflict in role play, especially in groups of younger children, happens quite often. Role play costumes are brilliant for igniting children’s imaginations and enabling them to step out of themselves and into other characters, and sometimes those characters can have a strong sense of justice. In group role play, I have often observed children playing games in which there are goodies and baddies. These games are usually high energy and involve the goodies chasing and defeating the baddies in some way. Often you see the roles reverse, and more running and chasing ensues!
As the adult in this scenario, it can feel quite daunting to hold space for such play – it can be loud, physical and sometimes overwhelming for us – but the value of this type of play for children is immense. The freedom to move through emotions, to run and shout and let go of worries and tension is vital for them. They may not have the language required to understand how they are feeling, but they will have the play skills.
Children are good at making their own rules when playing, so the role of the adult is mostly to observe and to ensure the space is safe – that the children are not likely to trip over or run into things – and to intervene only if you notice things getting too wild and someone is at risk of getting hurt.
Soft toys, dolls and puppets
My daughter regularly engages in play with her many soft toys. I often find that she has turned her bedroom into a school, where she is the teacher and sparkly-eyed teddies are gathered around looking up at her.
Sometimes some of the pupils in her class will fall out with each other and she steps in to support them in resolving their conflict. I also watch her working through her own inner conflicts. For example, when she is feeling shy or unable to do something at school, she enters the safety of her own imaginary classroom as the teacher, and narrates all the words of support and encouragement that she needs in real life to feel more confident and secure.
Inner conflict and self-doubt can be as difficult to manage for children as they are for adults. Play allows them space to challenge these thoughts and emotions.
Holding space and supporting play
The good news is that you do not need to be a therapist to support your child through play. The joy of play is that we can all do it.
Allow your child to choose what they want to play with. It might be more than one thing at a time, and it might be messy. Go with it. There is no need for ‘invitations to play’ or setting up complex play trays if you are worried about how they are feeling. Children will know what they want to play with and how they want to play. Your job is to hold the space for your child, and you can do this by simply sitting near them as they play and being present, which means there should be no phones or other distractions, such as the TV or a laptop.
Your child might choose to invite you to play, or they might not. Regardless of their decision, just remain there and present for as long as you can. It might not feel like it, but it really does help them.
If you are invited to play, let your child lead the play, choose the activities and direct you. If they choose to shut down a game mid-way through and move on to something else, that’s fine. It also doesn’t matter if you and your child do not follow the rules of a game – make them up and have fun!
Don’t feel you need to interpret the play your child chooses or unpick what happens in that play. Nor do you need to question your child about their play, as they will be working through their thoughts and feelings for themselves.
You might notice a few things come up that prompt you to reconsider how you do things at home, such as limiting exposure to the news, for example, and that is your learning from the play – something you can take away and work on. The focus of play is for your child to relax and have fun while feeling safe and supported. It really is that simple.
Holding space for play is not something we need to do every time a child is playing, and it’s not even something you need to plan. It is simply a way for you to connect and check in with your child every now and then, that enables you to observe what is coming up for them.
I will leave you with this thought: don’t assume that your child is worried about the same things as you if they seem upset. When my son went to bed last night, he told me he was worried. Immediately my mind started racing. I was desperate to discover what he was so worried about and how I could rescue him. After 25 long minutes quizzing him about whether his fears were related to coronavirus, or illness, or germs, or friends, or family, or money, or a third world war, it eventually emerged that he was actually upset because he had got his sausages stuck in a machine in a game he was playing on his device much earlier in the day: “There were just too many sausages to deal with!” After getting that off his chest, he promptly fell asleep. Oh, the joys of parenting!
Sarah Vaughan is a mother of three, an author, a holistic therapist, and the founder of The Do Try This at Home School, which provides free learning and therapeutic play activities for children and families through its website and social media. She lives in rural East Kent and can often be found in the woods, finding inspiration for her writing and her creative, nature-based activities. thedotrythisathomeschool.com
Illustration by Veronica Petrie