The Healing Powers of Play

Dealing with COVID-19 Trauma

Marcy Guddemi | September 2020

Why can’t I go to school? Why can’t I play with my friends? Why are you (parents) home all day long? Why does the teacher keep telling me what to do on the computer? Why do I have to wear this mask and wash my hands all the time? Why can’t we visit Grandma? Why did Grandpa die? Why can’t I sleep with you? Are you going to die, too?

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Children don’t understand what is happening in this crazy Covid-19 world nor why their once safe, predictable life is suddenly upturned.

Consequently, children will naturally react to this uncertainty and abrupt change in their lives and routines. It is no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic is causing trauma for some children, if not all children, in one way or another. Children simply do not understand why they feel the way they do.

At home, or at school, traumatized children may show the following symptoms:

  • Acting out—Attention getting behaviors such as tantrums, destroying things, showing off, refusing to eat prepared meals.
  • Aggression—Grabbing toys from others, fighting more with siblings, or being mean to the family pet or younger siblings.
  • Regression—Bed wetting, using baby talk, refusing to sleep alone.
  • Clinginess—Not wanting to be alone, wanting to be held more frequently, insisting only mommy can give ideas or soothe problems.
  • Withdrawal—Abnormally quiet and/or wanting to be by him/herself, not wanting to play or eat, sleeping more.

If children were already exhibiting some of these symptoms, the behaviors will worsen as the pandemic continues.

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Fortunately, children have a hardwired mechanism to deal with trauma. It is play, and in particular, pretend/dramatic play! Play is the child’s first language and it is how a child learns about the world. Play is the expression of the child’s most inner thoughts and deepest emotions; the more a child plays, the deeper the feelings that are revealed.

Simply put, pretend/dramatic play is healing and cathartic for the child. By reenacting a trauma repeatedly, the child is afforded the opportunity to work-through the trauma, make sense of what is happening, and gain power over his/her emotions and the situation. This type of play increases coping skills and self-regulation which can then be transferred to other relationships and situations.

Children use the healing power of play all the time. A child scolds his/her doll, gives the doll a shot, or tells a doll or puppet that they must eat all their food—“just one more bite!” More troubling examples of pretend play might parallel the trauma the child sees happening to his/her family members, especially a parent. A child shouts into a play phone, “I don’t want to see you ever again. I’ve had it! Do not call me again!” The child slams down the pretend phone only to pick the phone up and repeat the scenario all over again and again.

In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is another pervasive ongoing pandemic—social injustice—that is also causing trauma for children. During this Black Lives Matter movement, a traumatized child might play games such as “the police are coming, let’s hide from the police, everyone hide,” or making signs and “marching in a protest.”

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A recent New York Times article illustrated the healing value of play during the Covid-19 pandemic. A mother wrote that her five-year-old daughter wanted to play a game where the mother had to pretend she was the daughter, and the daughter pretended to be an overly-strict, older sister who monitored every move “the child” (mother) made during the pandemic. “Don’t touch that! Wash your hands! Are you listening?” While the mother grew tired of the game, the daughter still needed to play this role-reversal game over and over. Fortunately, the mother and child continued this theme on a daily basis.

Dramatic/pretend play can occur in the Macro-sphere where the child reenacts the trauma him/herself, with or without others; or, in the Micro-sphere, where the child manipulates miniature dolls or toys to act out the trauma. Both types of play are healing and therapeutic.

The extremely traumatized child might benefit from seeing a professional Play Therapist. The field of Play Therapy has been around for decades. In a playroom equipped with a variety of miniature dolls, figures, and toys, the child is encouraged to pick out toys or draw pictures to reenact what is troubling in the child’s real world. Dibbs in Search of Self, written by Virginia Alline in 1947 is a classic case study a child, dominated by overly controlling parents, who greatly benefitted from play therapy. Dibbs is a highly engaging, quick read and is highly recommended.

What can we do to help children who may be traumatized by Covid-19 happenings? Make time for unstructured play! Whether at home and/or in the classroom, indoors and outdoors—nothing is more important than allowing the child to freely choose what to play. Provide a wide variety of props and toys, small and large. Set up a hospital in a corner of the classroom or bedroom. Add masks and doctor/nurse outfits for playing medical themes. Help children make their own props or locations by providing lots of materials like cardboard boxes, tape, markers, sewing materials, etc. Allow the child to take the lead in play themes because the child knows what is troubling them and will show you through his/her play. As the adult, listen, observe, and actively role-play with the child whatever the child directs you to be.

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Children need plenty of time for unstructured, child-directed play, daily. Allow a minimum of 60 minutes inside and the same outside—longer if play is progressing well and child is still interested in playing and extending the theme—especially during these traumatizing times. Don’t skimp on outdoor play. It is extremely important for many reasons; including that children learn and experience things outdoors that they can’t possibly learn indoors.

We will all get through these troubling times. Play is the means to healing—both for your child and for you!

Health and Safety, Importance of Play, Advocating for Young Children