Special Play Time: A Simple and Powerful Intervention

At Ethos Wellness, our therapists believe in helping children communicate and process their emotions through their natural language—play. Play is an evidence-based platform through which children can connect with others and work through their thoughts and feelings. 

As parents, we often look for healthy ways to bond with our children and help them process daily life. Pioneer of modern individual play therapy Dr. Garry Landreth suggests that parents utilize their child’s language of play to accomplish this; an experience he refers to as “special play time.”

Below, we highlight the unique characteristics of special play time, as well as how parents can implement it successfully. 

1. What are the “guidelines” for special play time?

  • Create a Schedule
    Special play time is a scheduled time between you, the parent or guardian, and your child. It should happen consistently when scheduled, and should take place in a location that has minimal or no distractions (this includes cell phones, computers, etc.). It may be helpful to have a visual schedule where play time is marked off. 
  • Provide a Timer
    Special play time can start and end with a timer. This provides a visual for your child to understand how much time is left. Providing five and one-minute warnings to the end of special play time is also recommended. For example, say, “Okay, in two minutes, we will be all done with special play time, and dad will be back in charge.”
  • The Child Leads
    During this time, your child takes the lead. They are in charge of what toys are played with, how much or how little involvement you as the adult have in the play, and what direction the play takes. Do not attempt to steer the play, use the play as a teachable moment, or ask persistent questions throughout play.
  • No Distractions
    Special play time should be used as an opportunity to simply “be” with your child. Instead of asking questions, describe what their child is doing (for example, “You are using the car to move up!”) and reflect the thoughts and emotions in the play (“Wow, you were not expecting that. That scared you!”).
  • Undivided Attention
    One of the goals of special play time is for your child to feel heard and seen. This can take place when we, as the adult, provide our undivided attention (no phones, computers, television or other distractions).
  • Discuss Ahead
    Talk about special play with your child ahead of time; make sure they are aware of the parameters and rules.

2. What toys are and are NOT okay for special play time?

While we generally want children to choose the play/activity, if possible, it is generally best to avoid games that involve competition (i.e. board games), toys or items with screens, or items that are mechanical in nature. Typically, simple toys (think art materials, blocks, dramatic play items, dress up, etc.) are good options for special play time. 

3. What if my child tries to break house rules or do something unsafe during special play time?

One of the parameters of special play time is that, although your child is “in charge,” all house rules and rules surrounding safety remain in place. 

4. What is the difference between simply playing with my child and special play time? 

While all time spent together is hugely important, special play time differs from “simply playing” in a number of ways. When engaging in special play time, your child leads the play, and you follow their lead. As much as possible, you should not attempt to steer the play, use the play as a teaching opportunity, or ask multiple questions. Instead, simply follow the lead of your child and reflect their actions and underlying feelings.  

5.  Why is special play time important?

Special play time not only provides an opportunity for a stronger parent-child connection, but allows parents a “glimpse” into their child’s world. Through their play, your child is showing you their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Having this undivided attention in a nonjudgmental manner allows them to feel seen and heard. 

If you have questions about special play time or would like support in implementing this type of play at home, please reach out to our care team

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