The power of Play in Times of Tragedy

The tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, has left a community destroyed and educators and families across America grasping for answers. Like many of you, I am still sorting my thoughts and emotions, knowing that I will not make sense of what happened. I have spent hours reading the advice from experts and watching the news to see if some answers will make sense. I heard people talk about mental health issues and gun control laws. There are disagreements and arguments about how to protect and support children. What is real is the many families experiencing pain because their loved ones had died from violence. What is true is that we have children in fear of attending school and having to process what they have witnessed. What we know is that many educators are exiting the profession. We also see tremendous acts of courage by the educators that protected the children while in their care

When most people think of the word “play,” they likely think of something fun, perhaps trivial. However, play is anything but trivial. For children, play is a powerful way to learn and make sense of their world. In times of tragedy, when life seems out of control, play can provide a much-needed sense of order and healing. This is certainly true for the families affected by the Uvalde shooting. 

When the world seems like a scary place, where we see tragedies happening all the time, It is hard not to let what we see and hear affect us. It is even more challenging when we have children; because we want to keep them safe and shield them from what is going on. I have been thinking lately that maybe we can help children by showing them how to find joy in life, even in times of tragedy. That’s why I think it is more important than ever to make sure that we give children time to play, even when things seem hopeless. Play is the way to connect with each other and learn that life is still worth living regardless of the hardships we may be experiencing. 

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When children experience death or other losses, it can make them feel like their entire world is out of control. We can help children stay grounded by giving them power and control over their lives. Play is an integral part of human development. Play can also serve an essential role in helping children process grief and tragedy. In the wake of a loss, children may feel confused, scared, and alone. Play can provide a space for them to express their feelings, work through their emotions, and develop a sense of control. Through play, children can begin to make sense of their experiences and rebuild their sense of self. We must create the conditions for play following any significant life event, including death and tragedy.

Moreover, play can be a great way to connect with others facing similar challenges. By sharing our experiences through play, we can help to create a sense of community and support. Ultimately, play is an essential part of the healing process, and it should not be overlooked in times of crisis. One of my favorite authors, Vivian Paley, said, “The young child wants to play. He wants to play because intuitively, he understands that through play, he will understand more about who he is than in any other format.” These words validate the importance of play in processing tragic moments and grief.  

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How to Create the Conditions for Play

  1. Acknowledge your feelings – As adults, we may also be grieving. You may also need to process what happened. Play can help you connect with children and share that you are also hurt and afraid in a developmentally appropriate way. Still, you will always do everything to keep them safe. 
  1. Avoid judgment and allow for play to emerge. Even play that may make you uncomfortable. Remember that young children play to work through everything they wrestle with, from everyday challenges to anxiety, fear, and even loss and death. As adults, we know all the bad things that can happen. However, we need to see play from a child’s point of view and focus not just on the content.  
  1. Listen and observe – By listening and observing children as they play, you can decide when to step in and when to step back. Often children narrate what they think in their play. The narration offers us a view into children’s thinking. We may be able to better respond and decide when to have a conversation that will deepen their understanding of what they are experiencing.

Create opportunities for Imaginative Play. For example:

When children engage in gunplay, they take control of the tempo and how and when things happen. They gain the ability to anticipate what may happen next. Gunplay is part of imaginative play, and it enables children to understand better the reality of what happened. I have seen children engaged in gunplay and reenact complex narratives about who dies and who lives, including bringing each other to life after being shot. It is almost a way of undoing the reality they just experienced. In their play, children deny and undo what happened to maintain a sense of safety and control. Often, children have very little power, and they feel powerful and heroic with a gun.

Offer Loose Parts, blocks, dolls, and other educational media so that children can project what they feel and what they understand. Unscripted materials allow children to engage with their own thoughts and emotions. They revisit what they find exciting, scary, troubling, or confusing. Through imaginative play, children give meaning to experiences that may be uncomfortable or incomprehensible.   

Superhero play helps children feel invincible. It gives them access to power and esteem unavailable in daily experiences. Children see superheroes as courageous and capable of overcoming challenging obstacles while helping others. Role-playing in superhero play allows them to feel brave, fearless, and in control of their world.  

Create opportunities to play with art. Art is a great vehicle for children to express themselves. Being creative through drawing, clay, painting, or designing ephemeral art with Loose Parts helps children understand and represent their feelings. Offer different materials and let them control how they use them to express their thinking. Listen and learn when to ask questions about their art. They will share when they are ready.

Play with Storytelling. Death and loss often make children feel out of control. Encouraging them to engage in storytelling activities like playing with puppets can help them open up and share their stories when they are ready. Storytelling can help children process their grief and help them regain some sense of control.

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In today’s world, death and loss are inevitable. Grief has become part of our daily. Grief does not follow a schedule or specific procedures. Everyone (including children) grieves in their own way and timeline. Just as despair reveals itself differently for adults, the process of grieving will be unique to each child experiencing it. Our job is to be present and ready to answer questions with empathy and compassion and guide children by creating multiple opportunities to express themselves.