Let them play

Let the child's imaginary play reveal what their brains are processing during this very real time of quarantine. #preschool #earlychildhood #sandtraytherapy

When social distancing and shelter-in-place first began about two weeks ago, I thought that over time, younger children might get used to it, falling into a new rhythm and enjoying time at home. The longer this goes on, however, the more pressure builds as to why we cannot resume our normal routines the way we do, say, after a one week spring break or a long weekend.

Children's developing brains are resilient and adaptable, but children are processing more than usual right now:

- new routines

- parental stress

- limited or lack of social play with others

- lack of diversity of experiences

- increased screen time

- preoccupied adults who can't leave work at the office anymore

- disrupted attachments to relatives, teachers, friends, babysitters

Here's a way to facilitate children's processing of all of these novel experiences:

Let them play.

And here is one way to promote a kind of play that invites the processing of cognitive material that is floating around the subconscious, unassigned to any prior experiences to allow the child to make sense of it.

What I'd like you to do is gather as many of the small toy figurines like animals, people, houses, etc., that you can. Even if they don't match. Even if they are different sizes or weights or if they belong to different sets. You can reassemble sets later. This is important enough to break up your sets of toys for a few days.

Then, I want you to get a large platform with raised borders - a baking tray, a serving tray, a bin, an extra wide shoe box, a plastic under-the-bed storage bin.

Now I want you to fill it with anything that will help the figurines stand up in place - sand is preferred...otherwise, soil, flour*, rice*, beans*, cornstarch*, gravel, clean rabbit litter or child-safe kitty liter (like the recycled newspaper kind).

*I know food is more scarce than usual right now, and I'd like to encourage you that if you have industrial sized bags of flour, rice, etc, that you offer some to others to make sure everyone has access to these supplies before using them for play.

It's time to set up your sand tray station. Line up all of the figurines, in no particular order, on a nearby shelf or table, where the child has visual access to all of the figures. Fill the bin with the sand tray medium, and set it nearby. Now, invite the child over and see what happens.

Children will work out their inner problems, confusions, curiosities, dilemmas, incongruencies, and areas of cognitive dissonance in their open-ended play. By gently guiding - very gently - them, you can help them stay focused so they don't run off and do something else when the harder themes emerge. Usually they will stay there and work it out, or repeat a theme as they slowly process it externally. Since most of you reading this are parents and not trained sand tray therapists, you don't need to worry about analyzing (for instance, in the picture below there are many borders, groups not facing each other, animals surround the person in the turquoise chair, all just waiting to be psychoanalyzed). You don't have to do the analyzing, you just create a warm, inviting, "there is no right way to do this" emotional environment for the child.

You might not see themes emerge at first. But if you are able to allow the child to play in a self-directed way, themes will emerge. You may notice that they gravitate toward certain figures, or repeat the same phrases on behalf of a character in the tray. You also must resist their requests for you to play with them - try your best to keep your hands out of the tray. Say and do the bare minimum, and ask open-ended questions only when it feels significant to explore what is in the child's mind. If the play is violent, let it be violent. Witness and track this over time. As children work out their inner dilemmas through play, you may see themes become less frequent, or you may see correlations with their behavior throughout the day.

Remember, you don't have to have a 100% complete set of things, and not all things have to be actual things? You can add stuff from the recycle bin, like little bottle caps, or cut out corners of cardboard (make great fences!), etc. These are some great references to get you started:

Paint the Stars - Ten Things Your Sand Tray Cannot Live Without

Southern Sand Tray - 10 Categories for Sorting Sand Tray Shelves

Stephanie Antoni, ECE Teacher and Parenting Coach