Oh play! I LOVE play. Play is so powerful, it is the language of babies, toddlers, and children. It is how they communicate, how they process information, how they learn a new skill, how they engage with the world, how they connect with themselves and others, and how they move through something difficult. But what about play before bed?

Play is the greatest tool you can have as a parent, to communicate to, and with, your child.

As you can see play has many functions. One such function is to do with connecting with self and connecting with others. In fact, it is something we continue to do through life for this very reason, in many relationships. The play simply changes as we get older.

Connection to self and others makes a huge difference when it comes to the release of stress, tension, and difficult feelings. To be able to share with someone, means you have to feel deeply connected to self, to them, or both. This is especially true for babies, toddlers, and children.

As children grow and develop, play is very much about learning, exploring, and developing skills. However, another primary function is to engage with you, their parent, and to also develop social skills. To ultimately connect! You can see how interaction plays a huge part in developing relationships and communication skills, not only via attachment but in the direct building of skills based on the developmental timeline.

Play throughout the day and used as a tool for communication and engagement, shows a baby or small child, that she/he is worthy of love and attention, and more so, that they are worth the effort to learn the “language” of play. To learn their style of communication, and to take the time to enter their world. Leading to a deep sense of trust and security in their caregivers/parents; a component of a secure attachment.

Moreover, play is also a therapeutic tool, particularly as babies grow older into toddlerhood. It is used as a way to process events and information, role playing, for example, takes on a huge component. But in infancy, this is still true, however more from the connection perspective. Because connection brings emotional safety to the need for emotional expression.

The wonderful thing about play is, how quickly it brings connection.

At every age, the kind of play you will engage in will vary along the age continuum, and change according to yours, your families, and your child’s unique experiences. Peek-a-boo is a REALLY wonderful game with small babies and small children, in part because babies don’t yet have object permanency, and playing peek-a-boo with your hand allows them to process previous moments of separation that may have been stressful, through laughter. This game and its variants are also incredibly helpful with regards to later separation anxiety (normal for all toddlers), and going to school for older children.

Some other games include contingency games, this is where your little one will do something and your response is based on their action. So for instance, they may touch your nose, so you make a funny noise. When they do it again, you make the same noise. This is powerful for learning about consistency, expectation, repetition, and trust. It also helps babies and toddlers process feeling around powerlessness, lack of control, and changes in expectation; often daily occurrences for them.

Basic nonsense (silly) games can be really fun for all aged children too. For example, when changing a nappy and smelling their feet, you pretend they stink or doing a silly dance after each item of clothing is put on, or pulling silly faces whilst pretending you are mad/sad/happy etc.  Simply being silly and engaging in silliness helps both you and your child to let go, feel more relaxed in your bodies and in the space, and connect.

At each age and stage, children will invite play in different ways. With babies this can be in staying awake and wide-eyed, smiling and cooing, and displaying excited gestures. For toddlers and children it becomes more obvious, but what is often left unacknowledged is that “challenging behaviours” are always a form of communication. One of the prominent needs that are being communicated in a need for healing and/or a need for connection.

By playing games during the day, you can fill up your little one’s “connection tank.” They feel close to you, and will often display more behaviours closely aligned with who they are naturally. However, they also feel more emotionally saf, and when all people feel emotionally safe they express their hurts and pains more readily. This is positive and beneficial, and is another way children heal.

Once it is coming nearer to when your child will be going to sleep, and they appear somewhat tired but are not tired enough to go to sleep, and they may also be struggling to get their feelings out, play can help.

For instance, my son had a thumb/finger sucking control pattern (a mechanism used to “control” feelings instead of healing). He was tired but not tired and connected enough to sleep. He also had feelings (hence the control pattern) so I knew he needed to express them, but I also knew just pulling his hand out would cause more stress. So I would start to play some games, the aim to get him laughing. To heal through laughter!

I would chew on his fingers, or start to “eat” his hands and arms, I would pull faces and make silly noises to get him laughing. After his giggles calmed down, I would then hold him close and offer space to cry. However, if he still had his hands/fingers in his mouth, I would gently lay my hand on his (not removing his hand), and gently looking into his eyes. He would often begin to cry and release his tension. Then fall asleep.

The play gave him the connection he needed to feel safe, there was no power over or force. The play was me “saying” what he needed to hear in order to feel comfortable enough to share. The equivalent of another adult saying the exact words you needed to hear to relax enough to open up and share.

Play for babies, of all ages, is their language of connection. Prior to around two months, the above kind of play may not be necessary, but as they get older your little one will begin to invite you to play and engage in different ways. Often starting games themselves before bed.

For toddlers and older children these invitations, as said above, can also present themselves as “challenging behaviours.” This is also true of bedtime. Those bids for more food or water, to have more kisses or be tucked in again, to go to the toilet, or to be refusing to get dress/lay down/turn of the lights and so on, are request.

Yes…Requests!

The response? Play.

Unless your child is in the throes of tears or a tantrum, in which case I recommend presence and empathy (because play could be dismissive and somewhat disrespectful, resulting in more hurt and stress not less), then I recommend play.

So what can you do?

See the need

Be aware of what lies behind the behaviour. Your child may have had a really big day, a stressful event may have occurred, a new change may have occurred (a sibling being born, moving house etc.) which will all generate stress. Combined with general day to day stress, children have a lot of feelings!

It is not necessary to point this out, or over analyse, but simply being aware of what your child may be struggling with helps you to SEE the situation differently, and therefore approach the evening differently as well.

Set some limits before play

Invite you child to play, but to allow for understanding and expectation, I recommend giving a set amount of games, or a timeframe of how long play will last. Perhaps that play must be in the bedroom (no running around the house for example), or whatever needs you may feel YOU have in order to give MORE of your presence.

What I mean is that if you feel like it is a chore, and you are feeling compelled to sacrifice, then play is going to be counterproductive. By setting limits, you are being kind to yourself, as well as meeting the needs of your child for connection and processing through play.

Follow the leader

Your child is the expert on themselves here. Trust that they know what they need in order to processes and heal. This can be uncomfortable at times because a child may instigate a game where you feel like you could be “reinforcing bad behaviour.” For instance, shouting swear words, or playing hitting games. The reality is that these games actually help our children heal from experiences involving those issues, and therefore make it less of an issue.

Often these behaviours will then disappear. I had a personal experience where my son suddenly shouted “shut up” whilst we were playing on the bed. After a pause my husband and I gleefully shouted “no you shut up” back at him. For a good five minutes we yelled “shut up” to each other in multiple ways, and we all laughed really hard. We haven’t heard him say “shut up” since.

Laugh a lot

Whilst laughter is not always needed to feel connected, it is needed to heal. The more we laugh, the more we process our hurts and pain. We are able to support the feelings in moving through our body and being released.

Laughter is the opposite side of the same healing coin. It is laughter AND tears that help us heal, and this is why play, when crying is happening, is not likely to be helpful. We need both, with the connection of another person, that makes the difference.

Listen to the tears

Following on from the above. When play ends, a child can often be very upset and cry or throw a tantrum. It may feel unusual to first consider, but this is great! Crying and tantrums are a part of the healing dynamic, as stated above. If this happens, the best thing to do is to stay present and hold the limit.

“I know you really want to keep playing, and this was the last game. I’m here, I know it is upsetting.”

Simply acknowledging how your child feels about the end of play, supports them in expression of self in a healthy way. Yes this is healthy, firstly because it is natural, secondly because it set a foundational aspect to their relationship with feelings which is the first towards emotional maturity. That is: acknowledgment and acceptance of feelings.

Play before bed meets many of our children’s needs. We have be “taught” that this is wrong, but we have been taught something that is counter-productive and counter-intuitive to our true selves. As children we new play was essential, yet our parents often prevent or reprimanded our attempts to play; teaching us that play before bed was “wrong.” As parents now, knowing this, we can undo that and support one of our most natural drives for us and our children

Happy playing!

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