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Recognizing Stress
Strategies for
Parents & Teachers
Benefits of Play
& Age-Specific Interventions
Benefits of Play and Intervention
Beyond Play by Karen DeBord and Nick Amann

|  Part I  |  Part II  |

Background Information

Play is to a child what work is to an adult: It is what they do. It is through play that children learn about their world and the things in it. Play allows children the chance to explore their environment, to learn how it works and how they relate to it. A child can express feelings and emotions through various types of play activities (play, art, stories, etc.) far earlier than they can express them in words. For older children, play may be the outlet through which they convey emotions that they are either unwilling to share verbally or do not have the sufficient vocabulary to express. Through play children can be anyone, at anyplace, at anytime.

There are many people who can and should make use of this information. Parents and other family members, Regional Human Development Specialists and Generalists, public and private school teachers, child care providers, minsters and other religious leaders, baby sitters, relatives, Sunday school teachers, disaster relief workers, and anyone else who is charged with the care of children are included in this group.

Through play, professionals as well as the general public can identify the feelings, confusions, and questions in children's lives. If there are adequate suspicions that detailed problems exist, then referrals should be made to qualified social workers or therapists.

The purpose of this section is to describe some play techniques that can be used to help children cope with a variety of stressful situations. With all of the techniques described, it is essential to observe and note the process the child goes through during their play and not just note the finished product. Give your full attention to the child and do not limit their play, especially imaginative play, other than for safety reasons. It is important that adults join children in play activities, but only when asked. To presume an invitation has been made may be seen by the child as intrusive and inhibit the child's free expression. It is hoped that the play techniques listed below will prove to be a useful tool for people who work with children. Ideally, the skills and attitudes developed through the use of these play techniques will be transferred to all caregivers' daily interactions with children. The underlying concern of this effort is to promote the health and well-being of children.

Selection of Toys and Materials

When organizing play situations, an objective basis for the selection of toys and materials is important. Items must be intentionally selected rather than just accumulated. The list of toys that have been found most likely to generate interaction and conversation are:

  • dishes
  • blocks
  • dolls and dollhouses
  • puppets
  • wagons
  • telephones
  • blocks
  • colored cubes
  • balls
  • crayons
  • and clay or playdough
Other items commonly found in therapeutic playrooms include:
  • cars
  • trains
  • balls
  • paper and scissors
  • baby bottles
  • chalkboards and chalk
  • playing cards and games
  • and a sink or tub for water play
The rationale for selecting these toys is that they allow, in their own way, the child to create or reconstruct reality from their own perspective. Another suggestion is to include props that specifically pertain to the situation the child is currently dealing with. For example, if the child is facing an illness include a doctor kit in the playroom.


All the activities listed below can work in almost any setting as long as the proper equipment and supplies can be made available. Children in churches, schools, community centers, child care centers, home or at a friends or relatives house, therapy settings, and during clean-up efforts after natural disasters may benefit from planned play situations.

Use of Play

Sand Tray/Table/Box- With the use of small toys and characters the child(ren) can recreate a portion of their world. Suggested toys and characters are people, animals, buildings, cars, soldiers, houses, trees, hedges, gates, boats, etc. It might be helpful to separate the props by type to aid the child's choice of mixing toys. Combining water with this activity can be an especially effective method for getting children to express their feelings. Children older than 8 or 10 may view this activity as "child's play" or use it as a simple escape measure and thus limit the effective communication of feelings.

Games- Games, such as checkers, board games, and playing cards, allow an older child (8-10 and up) a more complex avenue for expression that is beyond his younger peers. By participating with or watching a child play a game, it is possible to observe their responses to perceived threats (being jumped in checkers), how determined they are to win (aggression) and how they respond to actual loss (losing the game). A child will quite probably approach a game much in the same manner that they approach life: willingness to compete or standout, willing to take a risk to win or lose, desires to be in control, refusal to engage, demonstration of foresight and planning, responses to loss or victory. Games can either be a simple way to break the ice, make introductions,serve as a tool to gain some limited insight into the thoughts and feelings of the child.

Suitcase Playroom- This is a way to take the playroom out of a building or classroom. Each suitcase, or large cardboard box, has different types of toys and supplies in it: one for art supplies, one for dolls and puppets, and one for blocks, Legos(r), cars, etc. Essentially, each box is an "All-Star" cast of toys. If possible a collapsible dollhouse and a portable puppet stage should be included. Though not as inclusive or exhaustive as a traditional playroom, this approach does allow for enough materials to be taken along to help the children deal with their situation.

Start simple and select toys that are widely used by children. Realize that the selections will be affected by the type of community and the population being served. Urban and rural youth may have different toy preferences. Selection should be broad in type but not so numerous to make transportation difficult.

The suitcase technique is especially helpful in situations such as family/community meetings with no child care arrangements, in temporary homeless shelters, or anywhere that a lack of current resources may restrict play opportunities.

School Play Kit- This activity involves a model of a classroom, home, or any other setting where the child may be having difficulty. It is best to select a fairly large, non-specific room that could be used to represent a host of locations. Whatever setting is chosen, sufficient props (furniture, people, equipment, etc.) must be available for children to create a realistic representation. Allow the children to set up the room as they wish. This activity gives the child an objective view of their world and an opportunity for expressive release. Observe the process and note verbalizations to see if the way the child arranges the room is realistic or fanciful; present or past oriented. Special attention should be paid to the manner in which the children manipulate the characters. Are they hostile or friendly, calm or anxious, expressive or withdrawn? Observe the other character(s) to which the emotions are directed.

Use of Art

Painting with brushes- It is important to note the child's attitude about and approach to painting. The process may be of more value than the product. The child may indicate in his or her painting something (flooded home, particular individuals, stressful place or events) that still concerns them. This brief insight into the child's world may show a specific area where some intervention may be needed.

Details and changes over time can be very significant. Rather than attempting to guess what the child has represented, ask child to explain/describe various portions of their paintings to obtain a clearer understanding of their thought processes. Painting creates a permanent record that can be viewed by more than one person at more than one time. A teacher can save a painting to share with parents, social workers, or therapists. Specific to disaster relief or emergency situations, a child or a group of children can send paintings to rescue workers and/or volunteers and their agencies as a way of saying "Thank You". Children may have been separated physically from the people helping them, so this may be a way for them to express appreciation. Other children may hear adults talk about rescue efforts and need to express their lack of understanding, confusion, or frustration.

Finger Paints- When observing the process of finger painting, attention must be paid to rate, rhythm, colors used, types of lines, etc. A quick swipe of the child's hand can alter an entire picture. This type of painting will be less technical than brush painting as it relies more on large muscle groups. For children younger than five this may be simply overt motor activity and pleasant tactile stimulation. This is another chance to save an example for comparison of change, or stability over time.

Blackboard- Although no permanent record will be created, the blackboard offers familiarity to the school-age child as well as a quickly reusable surface. Further, several children can work at once on either individual projects or in the creation of a mural. This is a simple effective tool if a child or group of children need to be briefly separated from adults (i.e. town meeting, disaster relief organization meeting). Not only does this remove a distraction for the adults, but also protects the children from hearing about serious problems facing their community.

Clay/Playdough- The primary advantage of using clay is that children can express feelings in three dimensions. Figures can be made and moved. Buildings can be constructed and destroyed. By allowing children to create a representation of their world, whether real or fanciful, the chance to gain a better understanding of their needs is presented. As with other media, the process is as great an importance as the product.

Use of Storytelling

This may be one of the few activities shared throughout the world's cultures. Many cultures pass oral histories over many generations. Similar to this, a child may share important and insightful information with an adult through storytelling. The types of storytelling that follow are arranged with those most appropriate for younger children listed first. There are no age ranges stated as this will vary by child and degree of inhibition.

Mutual Storytelling- The adult begins by asking a few simple questions (name, age, grade, school). Next, the child is asked to tell a story that is about an actual event in his or her life. Notes should be taken or a recording made during the story for later reference. It is now the adults turn. The story is restated following the general course of the child's version although healthier behaviors and more positive outcomes are put in places where they are lacking.

Now the two stories can be compared by asking the child to identify the moral of the story (If the child can not do this, ask for the lesson or title of the stories). Be certain to make positive comments about both the child's story and the effort. Interpretations of underlying meanings or further study is best handled by trained therapists. Be aware that children, adults, and events may be represented in the story by other characters or forces. It may be beneficial to ask the child for more details about specific aspects of their story for a better understanding of the event and the child's feelings.

Elicited Storytelling- In this format the child is presented with basic ingredients of the story, characters, location, event of interest, and then given a few moments to think about what these people will do. Ask the child to tell a story and take notes during this time. As with mutual storytelling, ask follow-up questions about the story to allow a fuller expression on the part of the child. In both cases do not attempt any deep interpretation of the story, but rather, try to understand what the child is trying to share with you.

Storytelling is a good way to incorporate stress relief into a program for children. By weaving a tale about the disasters, focusing on your own experiences or on those of the children, you are able to communicate trust and security about frightening issues.

To work with a group using books as a means to elicit and address feelings, the facilitator must first establish trust. The pace of the group cannot move too fast as a great deal of processing time is necessary for participants. The facilitator should use patience to gently ask open ended, indirect questions such as: How did this make you feel? What did you think of when we read that part? Do others feel that way?

Do not start by telling the group that you have come together to talk about loss and anger. Let the group guide the discussion.

Group meetings should be fairly brief (30 minutes to 1 hour) and can reconvene with a brief retelling of the previous storyline or a new story.

Puppetry- This should be used as an integral part of the playroom rather than something to be done once and then put away. The adult can introduce the activity by performing first, or it can be child-directed from the onset. Puppetry is a good method for the initial gathering of information about children. A child may allow a puppet to express feelings, by acting out or even verbalizing feelings they cannot. Once the problem has been expressed it will be much easier to address. This activity can be either adult-child, one child alone, or a group of children working in together. The most useful puppets are those that depict a variety of races, cultures and genders. Animals and imaginary characters such as witches, ghosts, and devils also elicit rich interaction.

Drama/Costume play- This is the most sophisticated form of storytelling. It is a planned and deliberate attempt to stimulate imaginary play. Older (grade school and up) children will want props for their play in order to mix some reality into their fanciful play. Dressing up as someone else, whether the same age or older, allows the child to repeat past experiences but with more successful, happy, strong outcomes. A child in disguise may view this as a chance for "someone else" to tell about a problem or concern. This may also be a way the child can view the world from another person's perspective.

Continued... >

This material adapted by Dr. Karen DeBord, Child Development Specialist with North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. The material came from the Stress and Coping with Disaster manual from University Extension in Columbia, Missouri developed during the Flood of 1993.
Special Thanks to Dr. Karen DeBord, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and North Carolina State University


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