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How Children Use Play to Express Their Emotions

How children use play to express their emotions

The discovery of new emotions plays an important role in childhood development. As they grow, children experience increasingly complex emotions. While adults are familiar with feelings of jealousy, cheerfulness and excitement, these nuanced emotions can feel overwhelming to a child experiencing them for the first time. As a result, kids don’t always understand how to label their feelings and deal with them in a healthy, productive way.

Because children may not be able to understand and verbalize what they feel, the adults in their lives have the essential role of providing tools that allow them to express their emotions productively. Children develop emotional intelligence through their experiences, and with the right guidance, adults can help children grow in this area. Creating spaces for children to play gives them a constructive, tangible way to express emotions in a healthy way.

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How Preschool Children Express Emotions

Preschoolers grow their vocabulary every day, but they typically can’t use those words to express their feelings as they experience them. Sometimes they haven’t acquired the right language to describe their feelings. For example, a preschooler may not have the word for “loneliness” in their vocabulary. If they can’t name the emotion, they might have a difficult time handling the confusing feeling.

Some of the skills children learn during the preschool years include:

  • Patience: Around this age, children start to develop the concept of patience. The idea of waiting patiently is new, and they certainly won’t be perfect at first. With practice, preschoolers can start to handle situations where they don’t immediately get what they want in a mature way. Before they develop this skill, children might express impatience by getting fussy while completing tasks that require patience.
  • Sharing: Preschool kids also start to learn how to share around this age. Children need time and experience to practice this skill. With the development of patience, they can get better at waiting for their turn while sharing. They can also learn the benefits of letting others play with their toys. They learn that when they share with someone, it means they can have a turn in the future with something they want.

While they’re learning, preschoolers often turn to tantrums as a way of expressing their emotions. When they don’t have the words to express what they mean or the coping mechanisms to handle what they feel, they grow frustrated. This frustration bubbles over into an emotional, physical and irrational response. Though tantrums are an unproductive way to handle emotion, preschoolers do not recognize that yet.

It’s important that preschoolers learn to use words to express what they feel rather than tantrum actions — like communicating that they feel anger rather than throwing toys. This is where play can have a crucial role in their learning process. Playing outside on a playground gives kids the opportunity to express their frustration through a non-destructive, physical response. Playtime allows kids to expel excess energy caused by pent-up, negative emotions in a safe way.

Play can also help in the development of patience and sharing skills. Having children wait in line for a slide or a swing they want can help them practice being patient. On the playground, kids can also learn how sharing offers benefits to both them and others. For example, a child may notice that when they share the loop climber, they get the opportunity to use the log roll.

How school age kids express their emotions

How School-Age Children Express Emotions

School-age children enter a different stage of emotional expression. They have access to more coping mechanisms, but because their emotional portfolio keeps expanding, they need to continue finding new ways to express these new emotions. Some of the coping mechanisms they learned will no longer work at their age because the emotions they feel are too complicated. Some techniques can be adapted to work with these new emotions. New methods must be added as well.
Some of the emotions and concepts children learn about at the school age include:
  • Empathy: Around this time, children start to understand that others can have different points of view. They can begin developing a sense of empathy because they know not everyone feels the same way they do. Their empathy development is still in the early stages, so they may not always understand why others think differently. Kids may not feel as much compassion for other perspectives in this stage as they will in the future, but this is an important foundation.
  • Lying: School-age kids begin to understand the existence of right and wrong and can start to tell the difference. This doesn’t mean they always do the right thing. Between four and six years old, children may experiment with lying when they realize adults can’t read minds. They may tell tall tales as they try to make stories more exciting, or they might try to get out of trouble when they’ve done something wrong.
  • Independence: Once they begin elementary school, children start to learn, experience and experiment with independence. When they have small amounts of freedom to make choices within a controlled environment, they begin to learn how actions create consequences.

Children can utilize play as an effective tool to help them learn and process many of these emotions and concepts.

Learning Empathy Through Play

Playing with other children outside gives kids the opportunity to encounter different perspectives of children their age. When kids notice a difference in opinion between themselves and an adult, they may attribute it to the gap in age. When they see their peers expressing different opinions, they may grapple with why people they have similarities with think differently.
A child may try to understand why her friend doesn’t want to play on the slide. As a child grows, they can also start to understand that others have different abilities and preferences, like when a friend says he doesn’t like jumping rope because it hurts his lungs. When kids have a safe space to encounter different perspectives, they can grow their development of empathy.

Channeling Tall Tales Through Play

Imaginative play gives kids a chance to live out tall tales in a healthy manner. They can pretend they are pirates looking for treasure, and understand that when they play pretend, they get to live out fun adventures without lying. Their make-believe lets them exercise creative control over their lives without having to resort to lying to make a story sound interesting.

Experimenting With Independence Through Play

Play provides a controlled environment where a child can practice independence and learn about the consequences of their actions. For example, if a child promised she would swing with her friend and then decided to play cops and robbers, the child’s friend could express how she feels hurt and lonely because of the broken promise. The child could also think of creative solutions for the situation, such as asking her friend to play cops and robbers with her and their new friends. This choice could help the kids form closer friendships and learn that including people makes everyone feel happy.
On the other hand, children could experiment with choosing to cheat when they play cops and robbers. They may learn the consequences of their actions when their friends don’t want to play with a cheater. In both examples, the children are able to experiment with communication, forming relationships, problem solving and compromising — all because they had the opportunity to play.

How to Give Children the Ability to Express Emotions in Healthy Way

With guidance, children learn that some ways to express emotions are healthier than others. Giving kids the tools to express emotion through play sets them up for healthy relationships and stronger emotional tolerance than relying on unproductive means of expression.

Play gives children a great opportunity to positively and safely convey their feelings. They get to experiment with physical displays of emotions and hone the communication tools needed to verbalize those thoughts to others around them.

Here are healthy, productive ways how children use play to express emotion:

Benefits of pretend play for children

1. Pretend Play 

Using imagination offers a host of benefits to a child’s development, including the ability to express their emotions in a safe space outside of the real world. Pretend play teaches kids empathy because they have to enter into another person’s shoes and imagine life beyond themselves to play a character.
This play gives children a way to express their feelings by acting them out. Kids who are introverted or eager to please others may struggle with the prospect of letting people down or expressing a feeling that might hurt someone. Pretend play gives them a redirected outlet to practice expressing their emotions in a non-confrontational way.

2. Physical Exertion

Spending time outside exercising gives kids the opportunity to work through emotions caused by pent-up energy. They might feel frustrated or anxious after sitting for too long. Letting them exercise gives them a non-destructive way to get out energy instead of breaking or destroying things or having tantrums. Playing in open spaces especially gives children a blank canvas to express themselves physically.

3. Playing With Others

Kids model their behavior based on what they see others do. When they watch kids of different ages, backgrounds and abilities express their emotions through play, they become aware of options they may not have considered before. Additionally, playing with others gives kids an opportunity to talk to someone about their emotions, which helps them verbally process what they feel and get simple feedback on their situation.

4. Messy Play

Emotions get messy and complicated — so much so that even adults can have trouble expressing them. Not every emotion fits neatly in the category of “sad” or “happy.” Giving children unstructured play with no rules or objectives gives them a chance to non-destructively work out their emotions in a safe space. For example, sandboxes and water tables have no instructions or rules, which allows kids to take control of their situation.
Dramatic play for children

5. Dramatic Play

Kids love to reenact stories they read or see on television. When they encounter books or movies where characters go through the same conflicts they experience, they get to see how others handle their problems. If the character’s coping mechanism created a successful result, kids may try using that technique as well. Many kids love performing, so getting to use the environment around them to tell a story helps them process the story by living it out for themselves.
Playgrounds serve as excellent backdrops for dramatic play. A child could imagine an evil troll lives just below the playground bridge and decide they need to use wit to outsmart the clever creature. The tower before the slide could serve as an imaginary mountain they must reach to face their fear of heights. Their imagination can run wild as a way to help them creatively cope with the real emotions they experience in a make-believe environment.

Play and Continued Emotional Development

Play becomes less and less of a part of adults’ lives as they age, but playing means the world to children and serves an important role in their development. Showing kids they can use play as a tool to express emotions could be a game-changer for children who feel misunderstood. Play and emotions go hand in hand during childhood development.

Adults should try to avoid suppressing a child’s expression of emotions. Doing so teaches children to bottle up what they feel, which can lead to poor coping mechanisms later on in life. Instead, adults can focus on giving kids opportunities to redirect their feelings and express them in a healthy way so they can work through their feelings non-destructively. This helps children discover and develop the tools to continue using positive coping mechanisms in the future.

A well-stocked, exciting playground serves as an excellent option for one of a child’s emotional development tools. Only a child’s imagination limits the possibilities for constructive play. Playgrounds give children a space to put their imaginations into practice and develop both physically and mentally. Playing outside in a safe space offers many social, emotional and physical benefits, and even 15 minutes of free-play can reset a child’s emotional state. Having an accessible, safe playground gives kids the opportunity to play freely and pursue the development they need to become healthy, emotionally balanced adults in the future.

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A playground gives children the opportunity to be and discover themselves, all while spending time learning alongside others. Build a playground kids are excited to use so they have a safe space to help develop their emotional awareness.

If you’re looking for playground equipment that allows children to express themselves and learn vital communication skills through play, contact Little Tikes Commercial today to learn more about how we create safe and exciting environments for kids to grow.

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