Play for Resilience
The current COVID-19 pandemic has us on an unprecedented journey through difficult conditions filled with challenge and anxiety. As we all do our best and pray for solutions to be identified and available, we have a common human trait to strengthen us along the way: resilience!
Yes, I did say common. It turns out resilience is not a Marvel superpower, nor a rare trait found only in a lucky few. The research of Masten & Tellegen (2012) at the University of Minnesota, who have been studying resilience for the past 40+ years, concludes that resilience is prevalent among people. Given that these studies were conducted with Minneapolis kids, resilience is definitely common for us and has characteristics that can be trained and strengthened.
The general definition of resilience across research and literature is the ability to endure, and even thrive, in the face of adversity because of internal and external resources. We would all like to feel less pain and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic! Resiliency built inside of play may do this for us, and that is what I am going to discuss in this blog. We need play now more than ever, so I will describe 7 elements inside of play that promote resiliency.
Play offers the magic of a shared experience directed by a child. You might ask, “Where is the magic in that?” A child leading play is offering you an invitation to ‘walk in their shoes’ through the experience they are creating for you! Wow, don’t miss the power of this: it is a shared felt experience you are being invited into! This is an opportunity to understand something by feeling it in experience, rather than knowing it as a mental idea. A child will communicate their joy & fear to you by directing you through an experience.
If you ask questions or begin teaching, you will interrupt the child’s communication. As my first counseling supervisor MarDee Rosen Hall told me years ago, “kids are masters at getting you to feel how they feel.” Play therapy has demonstrated this for me time and time again. Young children do not communicate with words and ideas; they communicate by getting you to understand an experience. The idea of swimming is a far cry short of experiencing the water. Kids do not communicate through abstract concepts; they facilitate experiences to foster shared understanding. What greater opportunity is there to connect with someone than to ‘walk in their shoes’ through a shared experience they are directing? Play connects us in powerful ways!
Parents will benefit from knowing that it’s normal for emotions to be high during the beginning of mass stress like COVID-19 (Hobfoll et al., 2007). However, when adults are calm and regulated throughout a shared experience with a child, they are offering a connected nervous system of safety. There is a tremendous body of research on how a quiet, regulated nervous system is able to calm another (Gantt, 2012; Gaskill & Perry, 2014; Kestly, 2014; Van der Kolk, 2015). The regulated and connected play companion allows a child the safety needed to explore and express tough issues!
A further benefit of play is found in all the movement inherent in it. A parent playing with their child will frequently find themselves naturally moving with the child. Let’s call it the dance of play, and this dance takes on its own rhythm and synchrony that is very regulating to the nervous system (Gaskill & Perry, 2014). Whether the parent is mirroring the body language of a young child or tossing a ball back and forth with an adolescent, the nervous system is regulated through synchronicity and rhythm.
3. Being Proactive
As the child develops play skills, they become proactive. The child assumes authority and takes responsibility for their actions. In doing so, the child is practicing self-control and self-regulation. They are making the decisions and creating the experience, and the parent’s regulated presence provides the courage to actively explore difficult things. Play becomes the vehicle to explore things they wouldn’t without a safe ‘co-traveler.’ In this way, the child becomes proactive in their own circumstances. They are empowered to figure things out on their own, while being supported by the ‘safety net’ of a regulated nervous system. Play puts kids in the driver’s seat, and this proactive stance is crucial for resiliency (Masten, 2020).
Self-efficacy, the belief that one has the ability to produce a result, is not something a parent can give a child. It is something the child needs to find on their own. Play is an amazing arena for this to grow: a connected, loving adult allows the child’s proactive exploration to be their vehicle for gaining self-efficacy. Said more concisely, children need to struggle with some adversity on their own to build self-efficacy and resiliency (Hobfoll et al., 2007; Masten, 2020). Parents, this means you are not a teacher when in play, and you don’t give answers or save kids from struggle in play!
But play also facilitates another efficacy in route to hope – collective efficacy, or the belief that one belongs to a group that has the ability to produce desired results. From the work of Antonovsky with Holocaust survivors, hope often comes through collective efficacy (as cited in Hobfoll et al., 2007). Collective efficacy allows a child to believe forces outside of themselves will ensure their safety. Play gives abundant opportunities for collective efficacy: “I prevail because I’m lucky,” “my parents keep me safe,” or “God always wins!” By identifying with any of these groups, a child is in a more hopeful position. For young kids especially, a belief in being protected by family, a community, or God is extremely comforting.
5. Good thinking
What does it mean to have good thinking skills in terms of resiliency? Well, in this case, (lucky for us!) it is the very things play fosters: creativity, innovation, and coping beliefs. This is where play really shines for our benefit – it is the foundation and springboard for action and creativity! Play puts us into motion and sparks our imagination. It also promotes several cognitive skills that are the foundation for good problem-solving, critical thinking, and coping beliefs (Russ, 2004). Much of this good thinking will be demonstrated in play’s ability to alter risk by changing the perception of it (Seymour & Erdman, 1996). I think maybe all kids have played ‘don’t touch the lava,’ a game where children jump from safe pillows to a safe rug, all to avoid the wood floor (lava). This is a wonderful demonstration of empowered play. This playful thinking helps move a child from helpless to active coping: “I will find safe spots to jump to.”
6. Positive emotions
At its heart and core, play is fun! Play allows us to enter another time and space, to drop the concerns of reality, and to embrace joy, imagination, humor, and possibility. As said by a leading trauma researcher, “imagination can make you impervious to the current reality, and getting people to imagine new possibilities is growth and healing” (Van der Kolk, 2015). Anxiety does not exist at the same time as fun and laughter, which allows the fun of play to become a powerful vehicle for building resilience.
In the trainings I give for play therapy, I consistently emphasize the message that play naturally instills hope - in play, all things are possible! When all things are possible, you move from helpless to empowered. The common expression, “what would you do if you knew you could not fail” is lived out inside of play. When all things are possible, there is no failure. Play is a world of solutions! We defeat bullies by shooting lasers out of our eyes, we get away from bad situations by growing wings, and we cope with lava by finding stepping stones. When all things are possible, we have hope.
If we think of resiliency as cultivating power over circumstances, play becomes an amazing arena for resiliency. Honestly, we all need to play more! In fact, I might suggest we need to Play More if we are going to Prosper in these times of isolation and uncertainty (I couldn’t resist throwing this in).
Quick summary for parents:
Connect – let your child lead an experience
Regulate – bring the ‘safety net’ of your calm presence
Proactive-Efficacy – allow your child to wrestle with the issue
Good thinking – do not give answers; help explore possibilities
Positive emotions – embrace the fun and silliness of play
Hope – celebrate all success in play!
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