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Play as the release valve to the COVID-19 pandemic: ‘it provides the emotional release we need’

Play as the release valve to the pandemic: “It provides the emotional release we need.”
WATCH ABOVE: The last few weeks have brought a lot of change for children: schools are closed, sports and activities cancelled, even playdates are prohibited. Parenting experts say there's a simple solution to coping with our new reality: playing. And as Laurel Gregory explains - it's instinctual.

Over the last few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected Canadian families with a great deal of stress: layoffs, loss of income, school and childcare closures, just to name a few.

Children are coping with a great deal of change in a short period of time.

Deborah MacNamara, the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), says there’s a simple salve to the upheaval.

We reached her from her home in Vancouver to find out more:

Laurel Gregory: You recently hosted a webinar on The Power of Play to Take Care of Us and I was fascinated when you called play the release valve for this pandemic. Describe what you mean by that?

Deborah MacNamara: What play does is it carries you through hard times, because you don’t have to look at it directly and yet it provides the emotional release that we need. When you are facing separation, the emotional system is absolutely so active. People have nightmares. They might feel restless. They might feel agitated. They can’t concentrate. These are all signs that our emotional system is paying attention to what we need to pay attention to. But there’s a whole cascade — a tsunami of emotions — that are not being expressed.

Play is the safest place for relationships, for your consciousness, for your emotional system to not be overloaded and so it’s a perfect respite, but it will be the one thing that gets overlooked in a time of great stress.

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READ MORE: Montreal doctor recommends structured environment for kids amid coronavirus outbreak

LG: Is there a type of play parents should be encouraging, or should we just let children lead?

DM: I always trust nature. I would say create the space. Have the relationship so children can feel free to go into play — it’s not just, ‘Okay, it’s time to play. It’s good for you. It’s therapeutic.’ No one ever plays under those conditions. It’s about taking care of their needs in terms of contact and closeness, setting the field up. If your child likes Play-Doh or they like to run around, play tag, draw, paint, music: set the stage for them.

READ MORE: Co-parenting in the COVID-19 crisis

LG: Why are children channelling fear and alarm into play with things like coronavirus tag, versus just saying, ‘I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going on. Why aren’t I at daycare or school right now?’

DM: Because that’s too scary. That would suggest that an adult can’t take care of them. That would suggest that the world is unsafe. See, safety is an illusion. It’s an illusion for all of us but for children it’s a necessary illusion to create a psychological womb where development can happen. If they’re not safe, then their attention is fixated on the outside world to keep [them] safe. They can’t grow! You can’t listen to your voice, you can’t find your words, you can’t find your feelings. You can’t become your own person.
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READ MORE: How parents are getting through coronavirus isolation — without depending on screens

LG: I know a lot of parents who say, ‘I suck at playing.’ Now, a lot of adults are their child’s playmate because there are no playmates to be found. So what advice would you have for parents who need to step into this new role?

DM: Well, I would challenge the assumption that we need to become our child’s playmate. I don’t think that’s necessary. I think children also need to play on their own and a lot of times if you get your child to play on their own, there is often much more room for individual expression because there’s nothing getting in the way. There’s no person to move around. There’s no person to say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ My general rule is, play is important for us with our kids. It’s wonderful. They draw us into another world. We are going to feel better when we play with them. But don’t try to play at something that doesn’t jive for you. If you like to wrestle, wrestle! If you’re an arts and crafts person, do that! If you’re into basketball, set up basketball in the house. Draw, paint, whatever is your deal. Nobody wants to play with someone that’s like, ‘Uh, OK, alright what do you want me to — I’ll be the elephant. Alright, what’s next?’ That’s not fun!

Don’t feel you have to be your child’s playmate. But you do have to set the stage for play. That means we have to provide contact and closeness first because that releases the child’s preoccupation with attachment. Attachment is the most important thing in the brain.

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Parenting dilemmas during the COVID-19 pandemic
Parenting dilemmas during the COVID-19 pandemic