Play is sometimes the best way to get your child to express his or her feelings. By NG BEI SHAN Parents sometimes feel frustrated when they ask their children how they feel or what happened in school and get “I don’t know” for an answer. Or worse, just silence. On other days, children may reply “Everything’s okay” to please parents but their expression or body language may not seem congruent with their answers. If these scenarios sound familiar to you, there are a few things that you have to understand. First of all, children are not miniature adults; their cognitive development has not reached maturity. While adults communicate verbally to express feelings, children, especially those below eight years old, may face difficulty verbalising. Besides the mastery of language, children may feel threatened to confront their experiences, hence, they process them through activities. One activity that every child knows instinctively is “play.” Play is the natural medium of communication for children. Toys are their words and play is the language they speak. Your children can tell you more about how they feel during play because their defences are let down when they are doing something that they are naturally good at. Making them talk is much harder because talking is a skill that they are still acquiring and developing. Learning how to “speak their language” will help you communicate with them better. Here are some tips: 1. Draw Drawing is a very good way for children to express themselves. Children at ages four to eight may not be able to express themselves well verbally so give them some art materials and get them to draw. After that, have them talk about their drawings. Do not be judgmental of what they have drawn because they may present their world in a different way. Try asking open-ended questions so that they get to talk more about their drawings. For example, an orange circle may not necessarily represent an orange. If you would like to find out what that drawing means, try saying, “That looks interesting, what could that be? What does it do? Who does it belong to?” You may also join your children in drawing because by participating, they sense that you are also like them and you understand what they are doing. Your bond can also be further enhanced if you share your drawing with them in simple terms that they can understand. 2. Playing with dough or clay Sculpting is a form of expression. Letting your children play with play dough or clay enables them to be creative and also to enhance their dexterity abilities. You can join them and play. Take this chance to roll the dough with them and help them feel the texture of the material to improve their tactile senses. Some of the things that you can make are things that represent you or things that you like/dislike. Alternatively, build something that represents how you feel today. Get your kids to describe their creation. If you do not have any specific theme, just let them build whatever they want to. Often, that will be the theme which is prominent in their lives at that moment. Again, ask some open-ended questions to find out what is going on in their life now based on their creation. 3. Touch Touching is a very good way to bond. When we touch, our body will release “feel good” hormones that make us feel at ease. There are many ways that we can play using touch depending on you and your child’s preference. For instance, some people like to tickle their children and they enjoy the feeling of amusement and intimacy. Others may find themselves too sensitive to be tickled so they may prefer a different way to be touched. You can try getting some cotton balls and play “cleaning” with your kids. Gently “touch” your children’s face with the cotton ball and ask them how they feel, whether they like it and which spots they would like you to “clean.” Then, give your children a chance to “clean” your face, too. Use the “cleaning” to get your child to open up on why he or she wants that particular part cleaned. It opens up communication. If your child doesn’t want to be touched, you might want to look into it and try to find out why. It could be a physical, emotional or psychological issue. Or, it could just be that your child is upset with you. 4. Massage Massage is one very good way to touch. Not only will you be able to have some physical contact with your child, but you will also get to help them release tension especially after a long day. Keep it simple by limiting it to the shoulders and arms so that the objective of play does not turn into a chore. Instead of just massaging your children, get them to massage you, too. Taking turns makes it more interactive and fun. It can be a family activity whereby everyone sits in a circle and massages each other’s shoulders. After some time, change the seating position so that you get to massage another person. Then, take some time to talk about which massage style (light or strong pressure; fast or slow movements; gliding, kneading or draining) they like and why. You can go deeper into how they feel when someone massages them or when they would like to receive a massage the most. To wrap it up, have everyone validate one another and focus on how much they appreciate the massage given. 5. Games/ Sports There are many things that children can learn through sports because there are games that are more structured. There are rules and regulations to follow. Parents can talk to children about their gains and losses in a game. First of all, you can try to empathise with what they feel and let them process their feelings. Just listen and be there with them. Acknowledge that you accept their feelings. “I had a similar experience, too, I was disappointed when I lost in a game during my school competition when I was young.” Get them to reflect what they can improve on by asking “What would you do differently next time?” or “What do you think you did well and would like to keep doing?” Encourage them by saying, “That sounds like a good plan!”, “I like your spirits,” “Keep it up!” Support them and let them know that there is someone whom they can go to to express their feelings after a game. 6. Role playing Role playing is a powerful approach to get children to talk about themselves without “being themselves.” In role playing, they can pretend to be whomever they want to and talk about things from a different perspective. In a role play, parents and children can actually switch roles and children will also get a chance to empathise with what their parents have to go through. Role playing allows children’s imagination to run wild because they are not themselves in the play. You can get some soft toys or puppets for the role play or it can be done with any kinds of toys. Role playing is also a safer way for children to express themselves because they voice out their thoughts through a different identity. They do not have to worry about getting a punitive comment because they can channel it to the character they are playing. When you take part in the role play, your children will also be able to get a glimpse of your perspective. Role playing with your children can help you enhance your understanding of each other without the need for direct confrontation. 7. Be open While playing, do not restrict your children from too many things. This will hinder them from expressing themselves. Let them know that it is okay to do what they like and what they want during playtime. If they ask you to play something that you find silly, chase away that thought as that is when your children are inviting you into their world. Accept them and their ideas so that they feel safe to share more with you. Understand that children see things differently from adults. If they find you open, they will be more open with their thoughts, too. 8. Respect Respect comes both ways. Set a good example during playtime so that your children will also learn to respect others. You may set some basic boundaries so that children learn about responsibilities. Some of the examples can be tidying up together after playing, or not harming self and others. However, keep the boundaries simple and reasonable so that they do not feel that there are too many limitations. On the other hand, you will have to respect what your kids have to say. Do not interfere when they are telling a story or expressing something because they may feel that their ideas are being rejected. If you feel strongly about correcting them, express your concern and talk to them after the play session. If your child chooses not to speak during playtime, respect that silent moment. Just leave the door open and say, “I’ll be here for you. I’m willing to listen when you are ready to tell.” 9. Enjoy the process The whole purpose of playing is to have fun. Simply dive into the moment and enjoy the quality time with your children. Although you are still a parent, you don’t have to act like one while you are playing. There is no doubt that you will come across many teaching moments for your children but you have to bear in mind not to turn play into a planned lesson. You do not have to teach your child what to do and which is a “better way to play.” Just be their playmate and voice your opinions from the same level as them. If they find you cool, they will definitely accept your suggestion. Being authoritarian and telling them what to do during play may reduce their interest in playing with you. Be spontaneous and your children will gain some lessons from play without you constantly telling them what to do. 10. Be present You will not enjoy the process if you are not present during playtime. Being present does not mean merely physical presence; it means that you are with your children as a whole and you experience what they experience. You have to be mindful that children are sensitive – they can sniff that you are not paying attention to them. If your mind is wandering everywhere about work and household chores, you might as well focus on them first before spending time with your child. While the types of games may change as a child grows up, the language that they use is still the same. You can always tweak the tips suggested here according to your own needs. You will find that children are more than willing to communicate with you once you understand their language.