If you find yourself wondering “how can I help my child with big feelings?” then the answer is play. Discover how to use play for processing emotions effectively through 3 emotional play activities that will support a child to express their feelings, including emotional play examples!
- WATCH How Can I Help My Child With Big Feelings? 3 Emotional Play Activities + Examples
- Emotional Development for 3 to 5 year olds (and up)
- What are the emotional benefits of play?
- Emotional Development Play Activities (with examples)
- Data Collection
- Physical Transitions Activity
- Emotional processing + skill building play
- Part 2 "choose our own adventure" emotional play:
- IMPORTANT NOTES on Processing Emotions Through Play
Emotional Development for 3 to 5 year olds (and up)
Around 2 years old toddlers innately are capable of empathy – meaning they understand others feelings; but they don't necessarily know what to do with them.
The next stage of emotional development happens around 3 years old, where they learn to process feelings.
From 3 to 5 or 6 years old is a sweet spot in cultivating emotional intelligence and avoiding children growing up to become dysfunctional empaths.
Additionally, helping preschoolers handle their own big feelings lessens the likelihood of meltdowns.
We build resilience through play – that's the goal when it comes to emotions.
Not to avoid them or stuff them down, but to recover with ease, not rigidity.
What are the emotional benefits of play?
Play makes things concrete
Talking with a 3 year old will likely not get you very far. Talking is often way too abstract for toddlers who may not have previous experience to draw upon while trying to understand what you're saying.
Making concepts concrete through play can also make them feel contained and manageable vs. the giant dark abyss of the unknown.
Allows them to express what they don't have words for
Sometimes toddlers don't have the words for what's happening within them yet. Play gives you a chance to peek inside a toddler's world and gain insight based on how they arrange characters in play, the colors they choose, the activities they act out, and so much more.
Creates safety with emotions
The focus on play, and not them, creates enough space for toddlers to feel safe enough to express emotions they may feel scared of.
It's far enough removed that it doesn't feel personal to them, but close enough that it's still helping them develop.
It also gives them a chance to test out different roles within themselves, like what happens to the mommy in play when the toddler refuses bedtime and starts throwing things? Do they get in trouble? Are they met with love? They can test out “bad kid” behavior and “good kid” behavior and see all possible outcomes in a contained, safe way.
Learn coping skills
If you've ever tried talking with a toddler about the importance of breathing, meditation, going for a walk when feeling dysregulated you know it lands on deaf ears. Incorporating the use of coping skills in play is one of the best ways to actually help your kids incorporate them into their life.
Create more supportive behaviors
Children express their feeling through behaviors. Sometimes these behaviors are acceptable, ando ther times they can be harmful. Play provides an opportunity for children to learn how to express their feelings through supportive behaviors and making better choices.
For instance, if a child is angry their sibling took a toy from them, they may go to bite them. Obviously this isn't a safe behavioral expression of their feelings. Through play, you can introduce other behaviors for expressing angry feelings like screaming, getting an adult, going outside and hitting a baseball or punching bag. Really anything else that won't put them or others in harm's way.
Play helps toddlers feel less alone in their world and their feelings.
Connection can also reduce the likelihood of more serious mental health issues like anxiety or depression that may result from suppressed emotions.
Emotional Development Play Activities (with examples)
We are going to cover 3 ways to play with toddlers and preschoolers to help process emotions: data collection, physical transitions, and emotional processing/skill building
Okay so this is a little technique used in sand tray therapy often, but you can do it with anything really.
Basically what you’re going to do is create the structure – in sand tray therapy this is the actual sand tray but you can use anything really from a table top, to an outline of sticks in your yard, or a blanket laid out on the floor.
This structure is going to be for the scenario you're looking to gain insight on. It may be a home, a school, etc. Wherever you think your child is struggling or you're trying to gain more insight on.
Give the child as much freedom as possible in selecting the characters for this emotional play activity.
In true sand tray therapy they have walls and walls of toy figurines to choose from – each representing its own meaning in a way.
In this type of play, since you're just seeking to understand your child's inner emotional world, it's important to not have a preselected set of characters (the other emotional play examples we'll cover you can use preset characters).
Personally, I this is the best block set + my favorite item to do this with since it's a blank slate with a wide variety of colors and shapes. We add “emotion hats” onto them as we build on stories for processing feelings. I show how to do this in the video above.
Start by inviting your toddler or child to play. For instance, if you have a new sibling in the house you may say, “hey, let's play house!”
Lay out a blanket and say, “this is our house structure. Who lives in this house?” Me! “Hmm, what can we use for you?” and let them choose for each character.
Even when you get all the family members in your home, I still ask, is there anyone else we’re forgetting? You may be surprised as they may add people who don’t live with you to the mix. This is valuable information as that means they are organizing those people as part of your family system.
Next you’ll have them place the characters in the structure, notice how they orient things, if they put baby with mommy and they are farrrr across the house, or is baby in a closet and you’re all together, etc.
Again you can do this with a school setting, or even if your child has a hard time visiting grandparents you could do this at “Grandma’s house” instead of your house or ask them what the scene is after you've done this a couple times.
Benefit of this emotional play activity:
This sort of “data collection” type of emotional play activity gives you valuable insight into how you insights into how your child is perceiving and organizing the systems they are in and you can use that information for the emotional processing play we’re going to talk about later in this video.
Additionally, as humans we have a tendency to project our own experiences onto others, meaning we assume what their experience is like based on our own previous life experiences. Learning how to avoid this with our children can be really beneficial in healing family traumas or mental health patterns that have been learned from previous generations.
Essentially, the more curious we can get the better for our child to learn how to define their own experiences in life.
Physical Transitions Activity
If you're struggling to talk with your child about a big new transition like the start of school, a new sibling, a move or something else, play can help make the unknown more concrete and reduce the likelihood of your child struggling emotionally (and behaviorally) during the change.
There's two ways to go about this:
Explaining things that haven't happened yet:
Again, you can have your child choose the characters, or you can choose this time – it doesn't matter as much here because you'll play out the transition in front of child to help them take an abstract change to something that feels safe and concrete; so it's not really about data collection since they haven't lived through it yet.
Example (shown in video):
My toddler initially didn’t want to go to camp because she new baby brother was staying home with mommy and daddy all day and didn't know what camp was yet. So this is what it looked like:
- We all wake up for the day, get in the car to go to the beach. That’s staying the same.
- We play at the beach, then all go home. Same.
- But then, Cappie goes for a nap, mommy goes to work. That’s the same.
- But then daddy and reagan get in the car and go to camp. That’s different.
- Reagan plays at camp. Daddy comes home and goes to work.
- Reagan’s at camp. Cappie’s sleeping. Daddy and mommy are working at home.
- Cappie wakes up, babysitter comes to play with Cappie while mommy and daddy work, and Reagan is at camp.
- Babysitter leaves, Cappie goes to sleep, mommy and daddy work.
- Cappie wakes up, daddy gets cappie and goes to get Reagan.
- Everyone comes home. We watch TV, eat dinner, then swim in the pool, take showers, then go to bed. That’s the same.
Do this each night to help prepare for next day in understanding daily rhythms during tough times.
Explaining physical transitions they are going through + struggling with:
This is a hybrid emotional play activity from the previous two – showing a physical transition so they can organize an abstract change into a more concrete terms – and uses the data collection play to process emotions your child may be struggling to express.
When my daughter left her old school, we had to do this when she missed her friends:
- Character selection: Which block is Reagan? – Child chooses – Great!
- Setting stage: Reagan is going to camp now. Her old green school is still there, but now Reagan goes to this camp. Ellie goes to this camp. Harper is still at the green school.
- Data collection (ask as much or as little as your child will allow): How does Reagan feel about this? (if no answer, give 2-3 choices); Does Reagan want to go to her new camp?
Now you can see this leaves a lot of room with where to go next. In this play scenario you can also pull some of the tips from the next play activity I'm going to cover too.
Emotional processing + skill building play
For this type of play you're really getting into storytelling informed by real life events. The goal with this emotional play is to have your child look at how they are expressing their feelings through behavior, whether or not that feels good, and then provide other ways to process emotions effectively.
I also like to refer to this type of play as “choose your own adventure” play.
Part 1 of “choose your own adventure” emotional play:
This type of play should be done several times. The first time you'll start with just storytelling what your child is currently struggling with and how it typically goes. At the end say something like, “hmmm… that choice didn't feel good. Should we try that again?”
Bobby runs up the slide and grabs toys from other kids at the park, causing everyone to leave and no one wants to play with them. At the end you'd say “hmm… Bobby feels sad. He has no one to play with now that everyone left. Maybe if Bobby chose to use the stairs and let the other kids slide down or asked for a turn with the toys, the other kids would've chosen to play with him. Should we try that and see what happens?”
Part 2 “choose our own adventure” emotional play:
In the second part you'll start giving your child choices. You can also begin to introduce coping skills as part of your choices, or model it in the play as well before introducing it as a choice.
Bobby sees the other kids in line waiting to go down the slide… he really wants to climb up the slide though. What does he do? Climb up the slide or go around and climb up the stairs and wait for his turn to go down the slide?
When appropriate, model coping skills or ask child for ideas to help character cope so they can build that system internally.
Okay so to simplify this, this type of play follows the same concept of “choose your own adventure” books.
Formula is basically the same for ALL situations:
- Begin: You begin reenacting the situation
- Middle: Allow your child to make choices in playing out different behaviors associated with feelings to learn about consequences and feeling things through fully
- End: Sometimes you'll have a happy ending, other times you won't and that's okay too!
IMPORTANT NOTES on Processing Emotions Through Play
Your child may tell you everything you need to know about their inner world in this type of play – however if you have a type a perfectionist child who always does the “right” thing you may need to make the choice of “doing the wrong thing” to show them it's okay to not suppress those emotions and play with other parts of themselves.
REMEMBER: This type of play is about PROCESSING emotions – not just skill building.
Meaning if you have an anxious/perfectionist child who gets frustrated with others not following the rules, you may need to make some choices in the play to show them what happens if they let those “darker” emotions out and that it's still safe.
Don’t end every situation with a “happily ever after” just like choose your own adventure books don’t have great endings sometimes, you want to show the reality of “well that didn’t work, let’s try that again.”
It's important that we don't label the feelings/choices as good or bad (to the best of our ability) but instead focus more on the fact that choices have consequences. Sometimes we like those consequences, sometimes we don't. This is all about teaching children to think things through before reacting.
Keep in mind, when using play for emotional development and processing feelings, it's a dress rehearsal for the real situation, while showing them they aren’t alone, and that you/them can handle the big feelings as they come up.
The more you do this type of play, the faster they'll acquire the skills to pull upon them in the real “big feelings” moments. Using emotional play is truly the best way to introduce and integrate coping skills; not telling the child to breathe during a temper tantrum or meltdown.
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