Strengthening Attachment Through Play
By Jennifer Hector, LMFT
Play is fundamental to children’s social emotional learning. It is a field where kids can rehearse, work through and digest life’s possibilities. When parents join their kids in play, there is an invitation to enter into the child’s world, see through their eyes and engage in their exploration. This interactive exploration naturally strengthens the parent-child bond, increasing trust and security in this most important relationship.
There is a technique or way to be with children in their play called “descriptive commenting” that takes the impact of play a few steps further. It conveys in descriptive language what the child is seeing, touching, feeling, hearing, smelling, or tasting.
When parents enter the play of their child using words to narrate what they are witnessing, they can deeply affirm their child’s experience, show their interest and care, and reinforce their child’s positive actions. It is like a play by play coverage of an event putting words to movements and helping to affirm positive concepts in the play without being intrusive.
Many parents will enter a child’s play with questions like, “Why are you doing that?” or offer suggestions like “why don’t’ you do….” or use the play as a teaching moment, “Don’t do it like that; Do this….” These are attempts to join the child in play but they come with an agenda.
To really join with children in play, drop the agenda! Be willing to hang out in their space, following their lead and enjoying their exploration without any influence on the outcome. Just bring pure observation, curiosity and enthusiastic reflection. Without pressure to come forward and answer questions, children will talk more and share more information than you thought possible. Descriptive commenting tells the child that what she/he is doing is of value and is important to you. This makes a huge difference in your child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. It also increases their attention span and creativity.
An example of descriptive commenting is:
“You’re putting a blue block on top of a yellow block. Now a green block is going on top of the blue one. You’ve got three blocks on top of each other. There goes a red one on top of the green one. This is getting tall!”
In addition to helping them verbalize their experience through your narration and interest, this way of commenting and interacting develops warmth, shared enjoyment and delight between parent and child.
Using descriptive commenting with play is a sure fire way to increase positive interactions with your child and strengthen the attachment bond between you. With a parent being open and receptive to the child’s world, the child feels safe to come forward, to try new things and include the parent in their joy and discovery as well as frustrations and disappointments.