Play is a gateway to healing. As a caregiver, you can encourage your child to express his or her feelings through play. From simple pleasures like walking in the park, going to the playground, playing board games or staging a puppet show, play provides opportunities for self-expression, safe interactions, creativity and stress reduction. Listed below are ideas for play that have the potential for healing younger children.
Dolls and stuffed animals – Playing with dolls/stuffed animals provides your child with a non-threatening way to act out his or her worrisome feelings. If sexual acting out occurs you have the chance to model safe expressions of warmth and affection. Playing with dolls/stuffed animals also provides a means for your child to develop empathy and express compassion.
Drawing and painting – Children love to draw and it can help your child to express conflicted and troubling feelings. Drawings can be a window into your child’s deep-seated emotions. One activity you could try is to ask your child to draw a picture of something (perhaps an emotion, such as fear or happiness, or an object, such as a favorite toy or activity) and then discuss the drawing. Download the My Heart Coloring Sheet: Child and My Heart Coloring Sheet: Trusted Adult to use with your child.
Sand trays – Touching and building with sand is a creative way for children to express feelings and ideas. You may want to have action figures, dolls or other plastic toys to include in the sand play. Like drawing, playing with sand is a comforting and non-threatening way for children to express what is on their minds. You can buy sand trays or make your own with a basin and play sand, which can be purchased at most hardware stores.
Games – There are games designed especially for sexually abused children. They focus on helping your child to express their feelings, to understand the impact the abuse has had on their lives and to learn positive ways to adjust to their experience. One example is the use of “feeling” jars. Write out feelings on small strips of paper and then fold them and place them in a jar. Take turns selecting a piece of paper and acting out the feeling. The purpose is to develop your child’s feeling vocabulary. The more children can use words to express their feelings, the less likely they are to act them out in negative or challenging ways.
Puppets – Puppet shows are creative storytelling in action. Your child can be the creator, director and performer of his or her own production. Creative experiences such as these build your children’s self-esteem and pride in their abilities. Like doll play, puppet shows provide an opportunity for building storylines that express compassion and develop understanding.
Reading – Reading with your child is a comforting, intimate time for sharing ideas and having fun. If your child is old enough, you could create a book club. Meet regularly to discuss books that emphasize feelings, compassion, conflict resolution and other healing topics. There are also age-appropriate books on the topic of sexual abuse that you may want to read with your child.
Sports – For children who enjoy sports, physical exercise reduces stress and increases a child’s sense of well-being. In addition, organized sports teach children that trusting a grown-up can be safe and fun. Some children prefer individual activities like bike riding, rock climbing or hiking. Whatever their favorite activity, children can build their self-esteem through the development of new skills, determination, persistence and pride taken in a task accomplished.
Dance – Dancing is a wonderful way for children to express themselves. Whether your child attends lessons or just freestyles in the living room, dance connects to our inner lives and helps to convey deeper feelings, some of which we may not be aware.
Music – Music is fun but it can also be healing. Music helps a child to express emotions that are too difficult to put into words. You and your child can listen to music together and discuss how the music makes him or her feel. Or your child can create original music; you can learn a lot about how your child is feeling by listening to it.
You can probably think of many other ways to use play to help your child. What activities reduce her stress? When does he seem most relaxed and open to talking? What music, movies or television shows hold her interest enough to keep her in the here-and-now? Knowing these things can help you identify the best ways to reach out to your child and facilitate healing.
Websites that offer some good ideas for therapeutic play are Play Therapy Supply and Creative Therapy Store. If you would like, you can use these sites for ideas and then create your own versions at home.