How to use attachment based play to improve your child’s well-being
Attachment, in its most basic form refers to the relational bond between a child and their primary caregiver and is developed through the ways in which the primary caregiver interacts with the child in their primary years. Attachment theory posits that there are four main styles of attachment (which I will talk about another day) and that building a secure attachment lays the foundations for how children will ‘do’ relationships with others through the rest of their life.
A child’s attachment style has also been shown to impact self-esteem, trust, the way children view the world, ability to trust, ability to feel love and the way the view themselves. Creating a secure attachment, then, is the emotional advantage that you can gift the children in your care that will continue to benefit them for life.
“Play is the primary language for children and has been observed in virtually every culture since the beginning of recorded history.”
Play is perhaps the most developmentally appropriate and powerful medium for young children to build adult-child relationships, to develop cause-effect thinking, impulse control, process stressful situations and develop social skills. It is not only central but critical to childhood development, so much so that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the child has “a right to leisure, play, and participation in cultural and artistic activities…”
It is not surprising, then, that using the child’s natural language to engage with them can help to heal and strengthen an attachment between a child and their caregiver. Attachment based play is highly effective at healing relationships that have become fractured for any reason, helping children to cope with and process trauma and stress and to build and strengthen the secure foundations in all child-caregiver relationships.
Attachment based play can be incorporated into the everyday relationships with children; it does not need any special tools or toys and will not cost you anything other than time, laughter and love. When playing with your child, try to offer them your exclusive attention; turn off the TV, put away your mobile phone, put down your book and just be present.
Here are 6 ideas for attachment based play:
These have been adapted from Theraplay: Helping Parents and Children Build Better Relationships Through Attachment-Based Play
1. Body part sounds.
Sit facing your child and touch parts of their body (within their comfort level) whilst making unique sounds. For example gently press their nose with the sound “beep beep” or “eek eek” as you touch their ears and “honk honk” as you pull a toe. This is an example of an engagement activity. Engagement activities may at times feel intrusive (particularly if your child has a trauma history) and so it is important to remain sensitive to your child’s comfort level and they can learn that interacting with others can be fun.
2. Clapping imitation.
Start by clapping your hands and encouraging your little one to copy you, and then begin to create clapping patterns and delight in your little one when they copy the sequential pattern. You could also include touching other body parts whilst using a clap such as “heads, shoulders, knees and toes” or “pat-a-cake”.
3. Slippery slip.
Find some hand lotion or coconut oil and apply it liberally to your child’s hand asking them to pull their hand out from your two-handed grasp. When your child manages to free their hand, exaggerate your reaction by doing something like stumbling backwards stating “woah, see how strong you are. You did it!” You could also play this whilst applying sun cream or hand soap if these are points of resistance.
4. Blanket swing.
This is a favourite for children of all ages and will require two adults. Have your child lay face up on a big, soft blanket and gather up the corners gently swinging it from side to side whilst adults sing a lullaby using the child’s name. (E.g Rock-a-bye Billy on the tree top…). At the last line of the song “and up will come Billy cradle and all” heave the child up into the parent’s arms. You could then fall back onto a pre-arranged pile of cushions or the couch for a big cuddle.
5. Paper punch and basketball throw.
This is a great activity for children who enjoy big body movements and feeling powerful. For this one I often save our junk mail that gets delivered and when my kids seem a bit stuck and need to shift some emotion I pull it out for this game.
The adult holds a piece of newspaper nice and taut and gives the child a signal word e.g. “when I say lollipop” or "GO" to punch through the newspaper, continue with half pieces and quarter pieces of the newspaper until the pieces are too small to hold.
Ensure that the child only ever punches the paper on the signal and keep the boundaries consistent, this is a great game to build trust. With the remaining paper, crumple it up into balls and create a basketball loop with your arms. Encourage your child to throw the balls into the hoop making it more challenging if needed by increasing the distance.
Give your child a signal word for example “PINEAPPLES” and choose a movement such as hopping, crawling, hopscotch and race your child to other end of the room on the signal word. Try mixing it up and giving your child a false start for example by saying “strawberries” to help develop their patience and impulse control.
Above are just a few examples of attachment based play ideas that you can to start to incorporate in your interactions with the little ones in your care. As you can see, these are all activities that can be carried out without any fancy set up or toys. Of course, peek-a-boo, hide and seek and follow the leader are all well-known examples of play that can also provide predictability in your relationships.
Happy playing, loving and bonding with your little ones, I would love to hear back from you if you have found this useful or what you have observed by using these games.
Booth, P. B., & Jernberg, A. M. (2009). Theraplay: Helping Parents and Children Build Better Relationships Through Attachment-Based Play (3rd ed.).