A four-year-old boy is gathering stuffed animals, plastic horses, and blankets. He lays down all of the animals in rows on the floor, covers them with blankets, and says, “I’m making a cemetery.” The facilitator asks the child about the cemetery. He says that it is where people are buried. It makes him feel scared and sad. He adds, “My mom is buried in a cemetery. I miss her.”
This happened at one of our Nights of Support. This happens a lot. It is a good thing, it is a difficult thing, but in a few minutes this child processed many feelings and experiences. He used his imagination to create a world where he felt safe to explore the terrible things that happened. Imagination and play are vital to a child’s resilience. Through both, the boy continued to incorporate the death of his mother into his life and learned how to live with the loss.
Play is important for healthy physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Through play children learn essential life skills, such as negotiation, emotional regulation, perspective taking, equality, and problem solving (Gray, 2013). It is widely agreed that these are some of the key ingredients to being a successful adult. Play is a way for children to practice and grow their capabilities in a safe environment. They can explore new interests, overcome hurdles, and test limitations. Overall, play is an opportunity for children to foster resilience (Ginsburg, 2012). Practicing being resilient in play can help children when they face real-life issues.
Play and Childhood Grief
One of the worst possible events in a child’s life is the death of a parent, sibling, or other close family member. It is especially vital these children have opportunities to play after the loss, but if they played often before the death, they will have some foundation of resilience to support them while they’re grieving. Play gives children time to process all of their feelings about the death. Adults are quick to support the expression of some grief emotions, like sadness, confusion, and hopefulness, over the more “challenging” feelings like anger and frustration. It is important for grieving children to have a place where they feel comfortable sharing all of their feelings.
Play gives children time to process all of their feelings about the death. Death makes people of all ages feel out of control. Children especially experience this because they do not typically get to choose what information they are given about the person’s death. Other factors out of a child’s control are whether or not to attend the funeral, how the person is memorialized, when to go back to school, whether or not to go to grief therapy, and more. During play children can regain some control, either in imaginary ways or real ways.
Adult’s Role in Play
According to children, if adults control an activity, it cannot be considered play. This tells us to be observers, unless directed by the child to become part of the play. An adult’s job is to let the child be the guide, while watching and listening to the child’s words, body language, and behaviors. The child should control our involvement in play. Adults can do this by simply asking what they should be doing. This gives the child control. Children will be our best teachers for how we should act during play. We are not the experts on a child’s grief: they are.
Grieving children need the empathetic presence of a caring adult who will listen to them. Alan Wolfelt (1996) said it best: “Play, for a child in pain, is necessary to affirm that life will continue in the absence of someone loved…play is where she lives while she mourns.”
For information on how you can become a loving listener in a child’s life, please call Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss at 908-264-3100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.