Learning to be a calm and confident player in pretend play takes time; and helping without interfering in a child’s world of play can be a tricky balancing act! However, it is absolutely possible for adults to be a key support as children develop their symbolic play skills, without ‘taking over’. This post takes a look at a common obstacle in pretend play, which led to a ‘tantrum’ and threatened to shut the whole play idea down.
In this next installment in Kids Play Space’s Let the Child Lead series, I share how we moved through the ‘moments of heightened emotion’ together, allowing our little ‘fire fighter’ to remain engaged, happy, and once again totally independent in his play sequence.
Sure, he’d ‘fought fires’ before, only needing a plastic fireman’s hat and a hose to happily put out many spot fires in our pot plants … over and over again.
Today, though, was different.
He was fresh from experiencing the joy of seeing a real life fire engine and two fire fighters at his kinder. They put on the best show on EARTH! They ‘wowed’ the kids with the truck, sirens, lights, hose – even shooting water out together with a fire fighter. They learnt how to ‘stop, get down low, and roll’ to safety in the event of a fire. And, they saw a fire fighter dress in preparation to fight a fire, explaining each (very important) item of their uniform. This was serious business, and today, the whole neighbourhood heard about it.
“But mama! I need RED fireman long pants now!”
There were screams and tears. You know the kind.
Sure enough, his only ‘red fireman long pants’ were on the clothes line drying! I could feel my own anxiety levels rising as he became increasingly desperate and insistent. Of course, I might have calmed him in an instant by letting him wear those wet ‘red fireman long pants’. However, that would have only helped him in that exact moment – and would not be much use to him when other similar problems confront him in the future.
Let’s step back and analyse what was going on here a little. A ‘tantrum’.
Tantrums are meltdowns; and meltdowns are simply an overload of emotion, or a ‘moment of heightened emotion’.
When children experience this kind of sensory or emotional overwhelm, there is a rush of stress and anxiety hormones. Their behaviour is rarely to annoy or because they enjoy thrashing about, jumping, hitting or crying. They are out of control (dysregulated), frustrated, confused, upset, and letting us know (albeit, loudly), that they need us to stay close by and help them.
3 ACTIONS TAKEN TO CALM A ‘MOMENT OF HEIGHTENED EMOTION’
- I gave him a strong hug (deep/firm pressure provides excellent calming/regulating input).
- I spoke quietly, calmly and slowly (the opposite to him) in an attempt to help him co-regulate.
- I acknowledged his feelings and let him know I understood what he was saying (crying),“You’re upset because you really want those red fireman long pants… which are still wet on the clothes line”.
Once calm, he was ready to practise being flexible and adaptive in play.
Make no mistake – this is a life lesson.
I attempted to kick start his problem solving, by prompting, “Wait! Do you really think fire fighters ALWAYS wear red long pants?… What if their red pants are in the wash?… What else could they wear?… Surely, they couldn’t fight a fire with no pants!”
He settled on a pair of thick, fully lined, Winter trousers. (A wise choice I thought!!)
His mood brightened as he collected boots, a long red T-shirt, a red sleeveless jacket with a hood, and red ‘protective’ gloves…
Everything was going along smoothly, that is, until…
… well, he wanted to wear an all important safety mask. He had heard how important it is at kinder, and now he was consolidating his learnings- actively.
His creativity was re-focused with more prompting questions, remembering it was HIS play idea and being careful not to direct or take over.
“Okay! Great idea! What have you got that will work?”
He searched his ‘dress-ups drawer’, tried and discarded a doctor’s mask, and clarified, “It lifts up like this…”
“You mean like this does?” I pointed to an aeroplane eye mask.
“NO!!! It has glass over the eyes, to look out!”
I had a feeling his swimming goggles might fit his fire fighter eye mask requirements perfectly. However, instead of giving them directly to him, I let him keep pondering, considering his options a while, and then suggested “hmm, I wonder if you have anything to help you see under water?” It took a little while, but the excited twinkle of pride in his eyes when he found those swim goggles himself was priceless.
Previously, he’d used a skipping rope as a hose, but really, nothing beats an actual water hose!
And he was away, busily putting out spot fires again on cars, trucks, the fence… even in his fire hat!
In his efforts to see his own play ideas realised, he only needed a little support briefly whilst setting his scene and getting into character. After that, he was able to continue purposefully and independently in his wonderful world of pretend play for the next half hour to hour.
Imaginative play is a complex business, and many factors can contribute to challenges which may arise along the way; such as being tired, emotional, or overwhelmed from a sensory perspective. Some days, Master B can pretend to put on an imaginary fire fighter’s protective eye mask. Not today. Today he needed as close to the real items as possible as he consolidated his learning from the fire engine visit to kinder. In his quest, he experienced calming down when upset and exercised his problem solving skills. All the while, leading the play.
The lessons learned from solving his great fire fighting clothing dramas would be stored away in his memory, along with a growing collection of play memories. These memories represent his triumphs, play possibilities and an expanding confidence to engage in a wider range of play scenarios. And ALL of this leads to a more resilient child, better equipped for life in general!
That is why, dear neighbours, I did not just rip the damp, ‘red fireman long pants’ off the clothes line, and hand them to my upset child immediately.
** Edited to add: at the time of posting, as I was hitting the ‘publish’ button, Master 4 year old asked me “Mama, where are my superman costume pants?”… in the wash, of course! BUT… He skipped off to play, not in the slightest bit bothered by his incomplete Superman outfit today! #littlewins
I’d love to hear if you’ve experienced similar or have any thoughts on this ‘let the child lead’ pretend play lesson – feel free to leave a comment below!
Thanks for stopping by Kids Play Space!