The Healing Power of Play
I have never really enjoyed pretend play. As a child, I didn't play with dolls and as a teen, I did not babysit. In fact, until I was about 28 years old, I swore that I would never have kids. But eventually, something in my biology won out, and I realized that OK, yes, fine, I did want to have children.
I knew parenting would involve playing with children on some level, but it didn't really register as something that was going to be particularly important. I imagined myself as more of an art-project-homework-help-and-activity-kind-of-parent, rather than one who would roll around on the floor or engage in lots of imaginary roleplay. Deep down – in a stunning combination of arrogance and ignorance -- I believed that pretend play was a necessary, but tedious stage that kids eventually outgrew when they became "real" people. Well friends, the universe is a funny mistress indeed.
Six years ago, I was gifted a child who did not seem capable of play. As an infant, when confronted with toys, he would push them away, cry, fuss, or refuse to engage, turning his face away. At age four he still didn't pretend or build. He refused to respond when stuffed animals or Lego characters talked to him. He simply said, “No you do it. Make them talk. Do this. Do that. No. No. No.” At his daycare, they sent home report cards calling him a "leader" because he simply told other kids what to do in play scenarios, without engaging himself.
Unbeknownst to me, his sensory integration challenges and PDA had led him to not understand how to interact with toys and imaginary ideas, and to feel a surge of anxiety when the demand of reciprocal engagement or toy manipulation was placed on him. The common response was refusal, and over time, this led to delays in play skills – and concomitantly, his social and cognitive development. But as he grew older, this was also increasingly hidden behind challenging behavior, as the underlying brain-wiring differences went undiagnosed for the first five-plus years of his life.
Now that I have a seemingly neurotypical two-year-old, I finally know what it looks and feels like when your baby holds toys purposefully, explores them, manipulates them, and truly engages. It brings you joy to see them learn. It makes you feel like you’re doing a good job of parenting. And it’s easy. But years ago, I had no such reference point.
I feel guilty admitting that I thought my son's frustrating behavior was a reflection of his temperament, that he might just be an unpleasant kid to be around. In reality, Cooper simply wasn't learning the skills that most typical infants, babies, toddlers, and kids pick up seamlessly and effortlessly. His behavior reflected gross motor planning delays and the fact that bids for play placed a demand on him, which he then registered as a threat. It was his brain-wiring, not a character flaw.
And he was suddenly using alarming and aggressive behavior to tell us what he couldn't communicate with words: he was suffering, he had ideas that he couldn't make his body execute, he was trapped in a world and a body he didn't understand, and he knew he was falling behind his peers. Meanwhile, as I doubled down on a behavioral approach to solving the problems I observed on the surface, he was experiencing trauma.
In July of 2019, I flew with Cooper to Chicago to stay with a dear friend who is a child development specialist and to meet with some of her trusted colleagues who would assess my son. What my arrogant and ignorant self quickly learned from this friend, her colleagues, and the obsessive research that followed, was that play was not a stage to tolerate or get through as a parent, but rather the very foundation for the skills that humans use to exist in the world – problem solving, flexible thinking, frustration tolerance, creativity, communication. Intellectually, I knew this on some level, but it is a very different beast when a child who does not know how to play is living in your home, tearing things off your walls and howling at you for no apparent reason.
Over the course of four days, my dear friend modeled for me with her own son and with Cooper, how to play in a therapeutic way. When Cooper picked up an object and didn't know what to do with it, she would ask, “Is that a truck?” If the response was "No", she would pivot, and use more facial expressions than words. “Is that an ice cream cone?” He might provide the slightest nod, but she would see a glimmer of potential, expanding slightly, engaging him patiently. “It looks like it’s chocolate!” Trying to pull him out and get him to communicate. “Mhmmm.” Meanwhile, her own son, a few months younger than Cooper, was chatting our ears off, bursting with ideas, imagination, and pretend scenarios. It nearly broke my heart to see the two in contrast with one another.
At the end of the four days in Chicago, my friend gently explained, “Cooper’s play skills are a little delayed.” She introduced the DIRFloortime model – the approach she uses to work with children with Autism – and her wealth of knowledge about Dr. Greenspan, the man who pioneered this model to help children with developmental delays. She shared the Profectum website, which provided free training for parents. “This will help him, follow his lead, meet him where he is, he'll get there.” And then she drove us to the airport and sent us off into the new direction of our lives.
We arrived home to the D.C.-area without a clear understanding of the full picture, but we had a starting point. The kind occupational therapist who worked with my friend had suggested using the Floortime model every day, starting with just twenty minutes of uninterrupted time together a few times a day. She explained that this would help Cooper and I rebuild the relationship-based reciprocity that we were lacking and to help him develop confidence around problem solving and communication.
Upon arrival in our kitchen, I announced to my husband that we would now be playing "therapeutically" with our son at least an hour a day. My husband responded the same way I had at first, “But Cooper doesn't play. He just knocks things down. He demands we carry out actions on his behalf. He just wants to be thrown in the air or chased around the house. And most of the time he just whines and fusses and says ‘No’.”
But we had to try. On a Saturday afternoon I asked my son where he wanted to play. He chose his room. He shut the door, requested the light off, blinds open, with natural light. I left my cell phone outside and turned the visual timer to one hour. I looked at him and he looked away. I thought to myself, how can this approach be child-led if my child doesn't demonstrate any interest or ideas? I waited, smiled at him. I didn't know what to do. I grabbed his stuffed animals and tried to make them talk to him. He refused. No.
I remembered what one of the parents in the videos from the Profectum website had done and so I climbed into Cooper's old crib, which was still in his room. His eyes lit up as I awkwardly swung my legs over and he tried, unsuccessfully, to climb in with me. He couldn't do it, his body wouldn't do what he wanted it to do, so he started to melt down. Quickly, I got out of the crib and moved his feet purposefully between the rungs, showed him where to put his hands, how to swing his leg over. And I encouraged him, “You can do it, it's OK, I've got you.” He eventually got the foot placement down and climbed in with me. We started throwing stuffed animals in the air and bouncing up and down in the crib. He was laughing. I floated the idea of a stuffed-animal birthday party. Cooper seemed to engage. We then spent an entire hour throwing stuffed animals in the air and singing happy birthday over and over. Not exactly an imagination extravaganza. Was I doing this right? I decided it didn't matter, an hour of undivided attention certainly wasn't going to hurt.
And so it began. In the months leading up to our move to Michigan, I used up all my remaining vacation time at the job I had just left, in order to play every afternoon for an hour in his room. A storyline emerged after a few weeks: he was a baby polar bear who had just been born and he didn't know how to talk, walk, take naps, or drink milk. I was momma polar bear, helping the baby through the rhythms of a day. He would climb into his old crib with the exact foot positioning I had taught him, where he would "sleep" for a minute and I would lay on his bed, feeling myself slipping into a coma. Then baby polar bear would shoot up out of the crib and sound the alarm, “Time to wake up!” We would eat, then jump on the bed a little bit, and then lunch, then back to bed, and so on again and again. Each stage of the day lasted about thirty seconds.
It felt as if my son was starting from scratch, returning to his infancy, learning to exist in the world all over again, in the safety of his room with the door shut.
Over the past year and a half, baby polar bear has grown up a bit. He has relegated his younger brother to the "baby seal" role in his polar landscape. Some days, baby polar bear wants to cuddle with me or Dad in a cave of pillows and hunt for fish, while on other days he is a "big brother" polar bear calling the shots.
At times Cooper seems to use the polar bear persona as a tool to reduce his anxiety caused by PDA. It is a way of regulating himself after a morning of kindergarten, where he masks as best he can around his peers. He will come home, zone out in front of the TV with a crunchy snack and then ask to play with me. He will then don the character like a costume, so that he can comfortably play with his baby brother's toys and make goo-goo ga-ga sounds without embarrassment. It is as if he allows himself to return to typically younger developmental stages and work on those skills – like building with magnet-tiles, without the pressure of performing in the same way he sees his classmates at school perform with the same toy.
Because some PDA experts say many PDA children are emotionally about half their chronological age, this makes sense to me. It’s actually pretty crafty and adaptive of him. And during one play session recently, while I was taking a bathroom break, I shouted to Cooper, “OK, take your binky (pacifier) out so I can understand what you are saying while we play.” And then he waltzed in, swung the bathroom door open confidently, and placed one hand on his hip. His other hand gestured like a teenager as he announced, “Actually, mom, I am going to keep it in my mouth until baby polar bear grows up and then I will get rid of it. I'm not quite ready yet.” I couldn't help but laugh at his awareness of the vicarious nature of our polar bear play. And then without skipping a beat off we went to hunt down fish and float on blanket ice caps and roll in the couch cave yet again.
Perhaps it would be more encouraging to conclude by saying how much fun I am having rolling around on my dirty living-room floor, fishing for imaginary meals with my son, and somehow finding myself in my mama polar bear persona. But the reality is I still kind of dread playing this game, and I sometimes need a third cup of coffee to get my game face on. He enjoys it, though, and he’s learning and developing, and the sweet personality he’s had all along is blooming.