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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

BRAVE for Teachers: The Importance of Play

About midway through my healing process, I came to the realization that I did not know how to play, at least not with the abandonment of a young child. I had worked hard to find the hurting child inside of me who should have played, but she couldn’t.

As an early childhood educator, I had always believed in the importance of play, but never realized some of the ways I could not play were directly related to trauma. What I learned about this became an entire chapter in Jeannie’s BRAVE Childhood and included the following excerpts.

When trauma occurs, it often robs children of the pure abandonment found in healthy play. The play of traumatized children often takes on a repetitive, lackluster character. In my story, this was especially true since my perpetrator played blocks with me to gain my trust. He robbed the joy of play from me. It was crucial for me to allow myself to play again.

We have these children in our classrooms. They stand at the edge of the playground and no matter how much we encourage them, they never engage. When we do allow play in the classrooms, some children are disruptive and occasionally abuse the toys, while others seem to play without actually being present (or play in repetitive unnatural ways).

I was sometimes the child who wanted to enter in, but simply did not know how. Until therapy, I had forgotten this child who I buried under layers of coping strategies. While healing, I often wrote conversations with my child selves—many of these are included in my books. This conversation was very informative!

“But you loved to play before that awful day,” I said.

“Well, maybe,” she said. “Playing was just what I did.”

This made sense. Children don’t think about playing. They just play. As an adult, I taught about play, conducted seminars on play, informed teachers and parents about the importance of play—but always with the idea of just letting children play. One thing an adult can’t force a child to do is play. To a child it is like breathing. It is the most natural part of being a child.

No, of course she never would have thought about playing— but I did. I watched others play with children, but couldn’t play myself. Setting up play opportunities as a teacher was easy, but it was a cognitive effort. Yet, I did remember playing as a child....

Yes, I did play as a child because my subconscious split off these hurting parts of me who could not play and sent the Ones Who Live out into the world to do all the things “normal” children do. That is beyond this particular blog, but during therapy, the ones who could not play surfaced and I had to help them. My journey to helping this child self lean to play is in the chapter and it makes an important point for teachers.

It is hard for anyone who works with children to comprehend that a child might not know how to play. We believe they simply need to be encouraged. In the case of many traumatized children this is like thinking encouragement is all that is necessary to help a child swim who has never learned how. This realization came to me during an ATTACH conference workshop.

At the conference, I watched a video of an adult who was given the task of playing with his step child. He sat staring at the toys in the packet. Somewhere in his life, he had lost the ability to play. Recognizing this, the therapist intervened by modeling ways to play with the toys. In a short time, he was ready to interact with the child.

For children who seem to be unable to play, modeling and co-playing is essential. This is an important element in child therapy (which includes both the child and caregiver). See more about child therapy at this page at my website. Thinking a child who doesn’t enter into play is simply being shy or obstinate prevents us from helping the child utilize this important path for learning. Consider all the learning that takes place during play! A child who cannot play misses out on so much—physically, socially, and intellectually.

The chapter concludes with a conversation with Alice (of Wonderland fame). She wanders about in the book and often makes important points!

Alice looked serious. “They don’t let children play in school, you know.”

“Alice, you are right! But when I taught kindergarten, they learned by playing. Now there are no blocks or housekeeping centers. And the curriculum is so full, they aren’t able to read hundreds of books a year. Children need that. We seem to have forgotten what Fred Rogers tried to explain to us. ‘Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.’ We need to return play to the schools, don’t we?”

Alice nodded yes, and I saw her look up at a floating smile as the Cheshire Cat asked her,

‘Do you play croquet with the Queen today?’

‘I should like it very much,’ said Alice, ‘but I haven’t been invited yet.’


“You see,” I said to the floating smile. “The children are waiting for the invitation to play. We can invite them! It is how they learn, grow, and heal.”

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