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Little Zen Minds

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Developing Social Skills: The Hidden Genius in Unstructured Play by Erik Fisher, Ph.D.

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Leading Emotional Dynamics expert, Erik Fisher, Ph.D., aka Dr. E…, has been changing the lives of children, teens and adults for two decades. As he says, "Life happens for us, not to us, and understanding that is the key to our own empowerment."

While some would say that the eyes are the window to the soul, I would say that play is a window to the child’s soul. As parents and guides, how we view child’s play can encourage or discourage the expression of their imagination and true worldviews.

Sometimes when kids express themselves, have social struggles or play in ways that adults feel is inappropriate, they can be punished or corrected. While we want to make sure that no harm comes to anyone, these are times when adults should be especially vigilant to the themes that they see their kids employing in their play.

Rather than rushing to judgment and closing a door to understanding, take time to observe and become a participant in their play. By doing this, parents can learn, guide, and more fully understand their own kids and what comes from them through unstructured or semi-structured play.

“Unstructured and semi-structured play is so important to helping your child with their creativity, problem solving and social and emotional skills.”

Playthings (puppets in the instance of this video) are a great way to begin to see how your kids see the world socially. Many kids will find a voice that you didn’t know they had when they put a puppet on their hand, and you will cease to become their parent and can become a partner in play. To foster this type of social play parents should:

  • Provide a variety of puppets, dolls, action figures, and other playthings that encourage social interaction.
  • Allow everyone to find his or her character’s voice and stay true to it.
  • Let the kids drive the interaction and don’t critique! Take advantage of their imagination and creativity in the world that you all have created together.
  • Begin to see where the challenges may be and then allow your character’s voice to help the other characters find solutions to some of their social issues by asking questions and/or playing out viable solutions.
  • You can even set up some scenarios with the puppets to see how they react and respond, but be careful and try not to become the parent and step out of character.

What this video shows is a peek inside of the potential. What isn’t shown is what happened when the “reporter,” Grace, asked the kids questions without the puppets on their hands. They didn’t know what to say. They could not be heard, because many of them were suddenly too shy to speak, even though a child was asking them the questions.

Unstructured and semi-structured play is so important to helping your child with their creativity, problem solving and social and emotional skills. Whether you are observing, encouraging or playing right along with your kids, your supportive involvement is critical to helping them feel more confident. Other examples of unstructured play beyond puppets and character dolls and figures are:

  • role-play and acting games like playing house
  • adventure games outside
  • story telling, such as laying on your backs on a starry night, making up your own constellations and telling stories about the characters who live there!

Remember to let your kids go first, don’t critique, and listen to the themes of their stories.

It is often through the genius in their play that your kids will find their voice that you can truly hear, and it may not be through the words they speak. It may also be through that play that you may each have the opportunity to impart unspoken wisdom you all will take with you for the rest of your lives.