The Lost Art of Play

By Blog

Remember the days when we would go out into the woods, build forts, ride bikes all day, explore fields and neighborhoods, and spend hours playing, creating, and imagining?

Remember the days when we would go out into the woods, build forts, ride bikes all day, explore fields and neighborhoods, and spend hours playing, creating, and imagining? It seems our world has lost the art of play. Busy schedules, the convenience of technology, and so many other responsibilities to manage have led to less opportunities for creative play. While this may seem like simply less opportunities for old recreational activities and the opportunity for new types of interaction and social engagement, we find that less opportunities for creative play can detrimentally impact early childhood brain development. Play helps children exercise the not only their bodies, but also the “muscles” of the nervous system, which in turn helps them develop stronger neural pathways in the brain. Because children learn best through play and exploration, a lack of these opportunities can negatively impact brain development not only in a social-emotional context, but with regard to motor functioning, sensory processing, and the development of executive functioning skills. 

Why is this? Our brains are social organs, meaning that our brains learn most successfully through experiences with other people – by doing, rather than by talking or observing. Similarly, the brain “muscles” that are used during play – planning, organizing, problem-solving, creating, and engaging are the very executive functions that are housed in the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain directly behind a person’s forehead – these executive functioning skills are our highest levels capabilities, and are the skills that we want, and expect, most people to utilize on a daily basis. Take into consideration the act of building a fort – a child must envision the fort in his or her mind, identify and gather the necessary materials, organize and plan how to put them together, problem-solve aspects of the project that don’t work along the way, and physically compose and build the fort. That’s a tremendous amount of brain energy used, and a vast number of executive-functioning skills being exercised! Imagine the many ways in which this one activity can strengthen a child’s brain functioning and capacity.

So what happens when opportunities for play are diminished or removed altogether? We may see children who display more impulsivity, less self-awareness and self-regulation, less capacity for creativity, and less engagement with the world around them. Perhaps that sounds familiar. It seems that many children in today’s society function in this very manner. Of course, not all of these challenges can be attributed completely to limited opportunities for play, but they are certainly in part impacted by this. 

How do we enhance and incorporate play time into our busy schedules? Part of the answer is taking time to play together. Not only do our children need these opportunities for growth and development, but they specifically need to experience learning and growing through play together with us. What does this mean or look like? This can be incorporated into daily life in many different ways – we can make daily activities (grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning) into games. We can play our way through challenging tasks, we can time how long it takes to finish something, or race one another to complete a task. We can also take a 30-second pause to notice the world through our children’s eyes – they often see the beauty around us that we sometimes miss. We can let go of distractions (phones, emails, screens) and choose to have intentional time together. We can go outside and explore our surroundings with curiosity. Rather than teaching or attempting to have our children demonstrate their knowledge and skills (“what color is this? can you set up the house nicely? where does the furniture go?”), we can simply join our children in their play and follow their lead. We can pretend and go on exciting adventures in the backyard. We can do cooking experiments or find shapes in the clouds. 

We all have many demands and time constraints. But with play, quality outweighs quantity. A few minutes of engaged, intentional play time with our kids will carry much weight, and time for them to explore and imagine will have a big impact on their health and development. So let’s reframe our perspective on play. Play is not just an outlet for creative expression or a “break” from everyday life. Play, especially creative, imaginative, and uninhibited play, is the context in which children learn and grow. Functioning in the school environment and participation in daily living activities are the places and opportunities for practicing or implementing these skills; play is the context and place for learning, growing, and building these skills. Let’s recognize the importance of play and engagement with one another, and allow our bodies, minds, and hearts to flourish. Let’s bring back the days of fort building, nature exploring, bike riding, and finger painting. We may very well find ourselves healthier, more engaged, and more satisfied with life as a whole.

Three Simple Steps to Effectively Demonstrate Empathy

By Blog

Empathy is a critical skill important for healthy social-emotional engagement and functioning. Empathy is the ability to join a person in their experience – it is recognizing the emotional experience of another and stepping into it with them. Empathizing with a person doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, nor does it mean you have to come up with a solution for their problem or situation – it just means you’re walking in step with them through the particular circumstance. Because of this, empathy resonates with people far more deeply than sympathy does, so recognizing the difference between the two is important.

Sympathy, by simply “feeling bad” for someone, typically means validating or agreeing with their experience or perception of a situation, or projecting your own feelings onto their situation or expression of their circumstances. Because of this, sympathy can prove both tricky and ineffective. If you don’t agree with a person’s perception, you may be tempted to make them see things from a different point of view – this will only lead to further argument and will likely leave the person feeling misunderstood and not listened to. Similarly, if you project your own feelings onto the situation, you may misread their emotional experience, and you may be tempted to jump right into problem-solving. This can again lead to disconnection between you and the other person if they aren’t yet ready to step past the situation.

In contrast, empathy means understanding what a person is feeling and acknowledging their point of reference. Because of this, empathy resonates far more deeply with people than merely sympathy does. By simply joining a person right where they’re at, you can effectively acknowledge the difficulty of their experience and the feelings they are having. By stepping into a person’s emotional experience while staying regulated and calm yourself, you can more quickly and effectively help them de-escalate, move forward, and activate the problem-solving muscle in their brain.

There are several ways to strengthen your capacity for empathy – try some of these strategies and see how your relationships with others begin to improve!

Use Reflection

Reflective listening is a helpful communication strategy that can become almost second nature once you get in the habit of using it consistently! The premise is simple – listen to, and process, what a person is saying, then repeat their idea back to them to make sure you’ve understood correctly. When we want to help someone with a problem, our tendency in conversation can be to jump straight to problem-solving. If a person is not yet ready to move into problem-solving mode, this can leave them feeling unheard and disconnected. An effective way to maintain pace with a person is to utilize reflective listening – you’ll see that when you provide reflection, a person naturally begins to move through the sequence of sharing their story and experience into problem-solving mode.

Practice Perspective Taking

Perspective-taking refers to perceiving or understanding a perspective other than your own – it’s a great next step after successfully using reflective listening skills! In terms of engagement with other people, perspective-taking means practicing seeing things from another person’s point of view. This skill is beneficial to use in any interactions with others but can prove difficult in conflict or disagreement. Our tendency at times during a conflict or argument is to only see things from our perspective and to try to prove our point. How many of us are guilty of already having an answer ready in a conflict when the other person is talking? Rather than listening to the other individual and recognizing their experience, we tend to maintain a “one-track” mind focused on our own goal or point to prove. Perspective-taking doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with another person; it just means recognizing their emotional experience and processing what they are communicating. Seeing things from another person’s point of view and recognizing their experience is one of the foundational aspects of demonstrating and strengthening our capacity for empathy.

Emotional Self-Regulation & Metacognition

Before you can empathize with another person, it is important that you are aware of your own experience. It’s very difficult to join another person in their experience if you yourself are emotionally worked up, dysregulated, or mentally distracted. Self-regulation refers to our capacity to maintain, or return to, a level of calm even when experiencing strong emotions. Co-regulation refers to our ability to help another person return to a state of calm after being distressed. This isn’t through talking and problem-solving, but by the other person “feeding off of” our calm – when they see and experience our calm state (slow breathing, regular heartrate), they can eventually join us there. When empathizing with another person, it’s important for us to be aware of not only our emotional state, but our mental state as well. Metacognition means recognizing and understanding your own thought processes. By being aware of your own internal state of feeling and thinking, you will be better equipped to help others.  In this way, maintaining a healthy level of self-awareness will allow you to more effectively interact and empathize with others.

Putting it all Together

Once you are aware of your emotional and mental state in any given situation, you will be more equipped to successfully join another person in their experience. You can then effectively reflect their experience back to them, identify and understand their perspective, and attribute emotion or feeling to what they are describing. 

“Okay, so you’re saying that when you asked your teacher for more time to submit your homework, it seemed like your teacher wasn’t even listening to you and didn’t care. That must have felt really frustrating.”

In this scenario, you aren’t saying you agree or disagree with the person’s statement or description of their experience, you are simply reflecting back to them what they’ve stated (So you’re saying when you asked . . . it seemed like your teacher wasn’t listening and didn’t care), recognizing their perspective, and you are identifying their emotional experience within the situation (that must have been frustrating).

That is the recipe for empathy! For emotional growth and the development of self-regulation, people need to experience empathy over and over again within the context of positive regard and structured boundaries. This provides the relational safety in which emotional regulation can grow. As you begin to interact with people in an empathic manner, you will see that they will feel heard, respected, and valued, and will naturally be ready to transition into problem-solving more quickly!

As you work to strengthen your capacity for empathy, keep these steps in mind: recognize your experience (self-awareness and emotional regulation), identify the person’s experience (reflective listening and perspective-taking), and join them in their experience (reflection plus emotion).