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Helping your child through play

It might not seem like it when they’re being noisy and making a mess, but playing is a really important thing for your child’s mental wellbeing. Playing is a crucial part of how children’s minds develop and how they make sense of the confusing world around them. 

Why is play so important at the moment?

Playing is one way children deal with stress and cope with events in their lives. When children play, they are working out what they think about different situations and how to respond to them. Giving them the space to play and to let their imaginations run wild will help them cope with challenges and keep them emotionally and physically healthy.

If your child’s feeling anxious and worried, play can help them process their emotions. In this short film, Theresa Casey from the International Play Association has some tips on how you can support them.

Encouraging play

Playing isn’t just mucking around. Playing games and sports with their friends is a vital part of any child’s development. It helps keep them fit and healthy and can also improve their mood, concentration, and sleep quality. Check out our page on Getting into Summer for help finding activities (including free and discounted ones!) for children to take part in near you.

What if the way my child plays has changed?

If your child is feeling insecure, confused, upset or anxious, they might start playing in a different way. They may return to games they enjoyed when they were younger, like playing with dolls or building a den. If they or someone in the family has been ill, or if there has been a bereavement in the family, they may play games that are linked to illness, loss or even death. Or you might see them expressing negative feelings through their play, like boredom, loneliness, frustration or confusion. This is perfectly natural, it’s just their way of processing what’s going on at the moment. So unless they seem upset or stuck, just let them get on with it!

Noisy and destructive play

Let’s face it, on the whole, kids love making noise! And they’re pretty good at breaking things too. But playing in a noisy or even destructive way may also be their way of adapting to change or working through their emotions. So if your children seem to be making even more noise or mess than usual, this could well be their way of expressing feelings of frustration or confusion. It’s not easy, but try to be understanding rather than getting cross with them. 

Here are some tips for noisy or destructive play so the kids can get these feelings out of their systems without destroying the house.

Tips for dealing with noisy and destructive play

How else can I support my child to play?

The best thing you can do is give your child enough time and space to play, and to be understanding if they are noisy or make a mess. If your child knows that you’re happy for them to play, they’ll enjoy it more.

Sometimes they may want you to play with them, at other times they may prefer some privacy. Try to play it by ear – if they seem happy, it’s fine to leave them alone. On the other hand, if they ask you to join in or are demanding attention in other ways, try to set aside some time to do this.

If you’re working from home, it might help if you make it clear to your kids about when you’re able to play, and when you need to concentrate. A visual timetable or sign on the door could help them to know and to look forward to playtime. We have more tips to help balance working from home and looking after your children here.

What if they're acting up more than usual?

If you feel your child is acting up more than usual, this is probably just their way of expressing how they feel, so try to be understanding. They may be more needy, so try to give them a bit of extra attention whenever you can. It can be helpful to know you are not alone in finding it hard. Our page on coping with being a parent has useful tips on how to deal with difficult behaviour without losing your cool.

Our page on supporting your child’s mental health has advice on ways of helping children deal with worries and negative thoughts.

If they’re fighting with their brothers or sisters, check out our page on managing multiple children for some tips on keeping the peace.

In this short film, Dr Matluba Khan from A Place in Childhood explains how playing helps children work through difficult emotions, and how you can support them do this

Dealing with bereavement

Play is particularly important for helping children come to terms with loss. It can help children to make sense of their thoughts and work through their emotions. Our page on coping with bereavement has more information on how to help children through this difficult time.

More play ideas

When it comes to playing the possibilities are endless. All you need is an imagination. But that’s sometimes easier for your kids than for you. To help you come up with fun playtime suggestions, take a look at this play pack from Play Scotland. It’s full of games and resources to help you take their playtime to another level. There are suggestions for outdoor play, digital play, and even messy play if you’re brave enough.