An interview with renowned play therapist and mother Cheryl Shanahan
In our modern world, when walking down a Toys R Us aisle reminds us of a boardwalk arcade, it can be easy to forget that sometimes the healthiest toy for our child is a simple cardboard box.
We sat down with renowned play therapist and mother of two, Cheryl Shanahan, to hash out the key principles of healthy play. It turns out that optimizing play with our children can be very easy to do. We may just need to be reground in a plateau of simplicity.
Cheryl is a play therapist, an expert in analyzing children's play. She works with families to resolve challenges, helping children and their parents feel better and improve behavior through therapeutic play.
What are the key principles for better play?
There are 2 Key Principles: (1) Simplicity and (2) Connection.
Principle 1: Simplicity: How To Implement It
"Play doesn't need to be complicated," Cheryl shares.
- Use open-ended toys. Cheryl recommends using open-ended toys and open-ended play for the healthiest, optimal play. She continues, "open-ended toys are those that can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the child, their ways and their imagination. The child manipulates the toy, rather than the toy manipulating the child. Open-ended toys result in open ended play."
- Types of open-ended toys
- wooden blocks
- a blank piece of paper
- a lump of play-dough or
- a simple cardboard box
- Let our child have complete control over how to use these materials => builds our child's confidence. Cheryl says, "The child decides what they're making and how they are going to do it. It's another chance to succeed, an opportunity to gain a sense of accomplishment, confidence. As an adult that is invested in this child, you can be present as an observer and watch, wait and wonder what the child is gaining from this experience. You can follow the lead of the child when invited into play and allow this experience to be about what the child wants it to be."
Principle 2: Connection: How To Implement It
"Play is about a process that builds connection. Play has the power to strengthen relationships," Cheryl says.
- Recognize that our child can meet a relational need through play. Cheryl notes that "when parents play with their child they enter their world, speak their language and communicate that they matter and are worthwhile."
- Slow down and be present. "It’s important to slow down and honour each stage of development rather than working towards the next. Childhood should be enjoyed, not rushed," Cheryl notes. She continues, "play is best when not scheduled, planned or forced. It just happens when you take the time to be present with your child."
- i.e. we need to tap out of our chat groups for a bit, turn of the baseball game, put Instagram away and give our child our full attention. They will notice, and be happier for it.
What is the biggest mistake we make when playing with our children?
"The biggest challenge I see is that adults have too many expectations when it comes to play and this leads play to become adult directed, taught and product-driven," Cheryl says.
- Trying to always be "teaching". "There is a time and a place for teaching to happen through play. However, it's important that adults think less about what they can give to a child through play and more about what a child needs from play."
- Limiting our child's creative experience by leading them in play. "Imagine a young child that has been given a lump of play-dough. An adult can easily show them how to roll it, squish it, or mold it into something identifiable. We need to consider that the child may have something different in mind. If we lead by example and demonstrate how play-dough can be used, we’re limiting the creative experience."
- Not letting our child take the lead and thus not letting our child know her thoughts and ideas are important. "We can empower a child by allowing them to take control to lead themselves to what is meaningful for them. We can allow play to be about the process, rather than a product. We can allow play to be about the child, not the adult. We can allow the child to learn rather than focusing on the adult to teach a skill. When we allow children to take the lead, we're sending them the message that their thoughts and ideas are important and that we're there to listen."
How can we set up our daily routines to have a healthier relationship and better play with our children?
"If you win the morning, you win the day," Tim Ferris (productivity guru). So how does Cheryl recommend we begin our day as parents to set the ground for a healthy relationship with our children?
"It’s not about what takes place in the morning but waking up with the aim to clear your mind and focus on being present," Cheryl says.
Cheryl notes that as parents of infants and toddlers routines change often with the ebb and flow of sleeping and feeding patterns. "My morning routine is forever changing as my children grow and develop."
Good news! She says we can still succeed in setting up our day for success even with this constant fluctuation. How? Cheryl emphasizes holding on to these key principles:
- Make mornings a time for connection.
- Slow down and enjoy the time spent together.
- Focus on being present.
You are a mom of 2! What would advice would you give your pregnant self expecting your first child?
Advice for first time parents
Cheryl recommends preparing yourself for the crying. "This might sound like something a mother-to-be would expect after the arrival of a newborn but what I didn't expect was how strongly I would feel about those cries. With my first baby, I spent a lot of energy both preventing and promptly responding to crying. The advice I would give is to accept that crying is a release that a baby needs and that it's an important part of development. I think that being a responsive parent is important but that it is also vital that we let our children release feelings, even from the beginning and to support yourself and your baby with containing these feelings in a healthy way."
Does your advice differ from what you would tell yourself when you were expecting your second child?
Advice for parents expecting siblings
Cheryl says, "The advice I would give myself the second time around would be to prepare myself to not be able to parent the way that you did with one child. This was a challenging aspect of having my children so close together. This is when it is essential to accept help and to build the village that can help you care for your children. It’s important to not try to do it all yourself, trusting others and accepting help is beneficial for the entire family. It is important for children to have a strong support network and this can be established from the beginning."
What are your favorite children's books and resources for parents?
Favorite children's book? The Invisible String by Patrice Karst.
Cheryl describes Karst's The Invisible String: "It's a lovely story about two young children that are getting ready to go to sleep at night and are woken and scared by the sound of a storm. The children listen to their mother tell them a story about how they each have a heart inside of them and that it has invisible strings reaching out to all of the people that they love and that love them and that they're always connected to these people. The author writes, "even though you can't see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your heart and know that you are always connected to everyone you love". This is a story that many children can identify with and makes sense of separation from those they love. "
Best resources for parents? Rest, Play, Grow - Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One) by Dr. Deborah MacNamara from the Neufeld Institute and The Little Boy by Helen E. Buckley. Buckley's "The Little Boy" brought tears to our eyes.. it's brief and pointed on letting our children lead in play- we encourage you take a look.
More About Cheryl Shanahan
Cheryl is a play therapist and mother of two in Hong Kong. Previously, she was a teacher in Canada. Her experiences as a teacher, mother and now play therapist unite a unique skill set to support parents and children. Moreover, she is extremely personable and easy to approach with family challenges. She utilizes play as a tool to connect families, supporting them through any obstacles that surface.
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