Research suggests that children can become anxious if they have too little time for free play. Barnett (1984) assessed children on their anxiety levels on their first day at nursery school. It was found that the children who were able to play freely had lower levels of anxiety than those who had to listen to stories. This supports the view that play allows children to work through their conflicts and anxiety.
The case of Dibs, a 5-year old boy who showed very disturbed behaviour shows the importance of play for dealing with issues (Axline, 1947). Dibs was referred to Axline, a clinical psychologist specialising in play therapy, for very disturbed behaviour. His parents thought he might be brain damaged. Axline watched Dibs’ play carefully to look for emotional reasons for his disturbed behaviour. Dibs often played with dolls that represented his family and in one instance, he buried a doll representing his father in the sand. This was interpreted as hostility towards his father. Axline was able to uncover Dibs’ conflicts and problems through the therapy. Dibs’ relationship with his parents improved as did his behaviour at school. Dibs IQ was tested after the therapy and he scored in the top 1% of the population. By then he had no emotional difficulties.
Sloan (1999) examined whether play therapy could be used to reduce aggressive behaviour in children in New York. The study found that play therapy is effective for reducing aggressive behaviour.
How can a parent use play at home to deal with anxiety?
Parents can use toy figures and role play to work through fears and other issues with their children. For example, if your child is worried about going to the doctors, you can role play doctors with them or encourage them to play doctors with their dolls or teddies. If your child is frightened of the dark, you can pretend that a toy figure is being put to bed in the dark and your child can talk about their fears. Another toy figure can be used to dispel fears. Any monsters or ghosts that turn up in the role play can be changed into something non-threatening. You can get your child to imagine what the toy figures/dolls would do if they were very brave (Jay et al., 1987).
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Want your child to read more? Read ‘The Fortress’, a fantasy adventure story aimed at 7- to 10-year-olds.