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The power of play: What play is, and how Peoria embraces it on a daily basis

A child playing at Bright Futures preschool in Peoria
Bright Futures
A child playing at Bright Futures preschool in Peoria.

National Play Therapy Week was this month, and many organizations in the Peoria area are embracing what it means to play in its fullest capacity. Whether it's therapeutic, educational, or recreational, the power of play is abundant in all three settings.

While everyone is familiar with what play means, many people don’t know how useful it is as a therapy tool. While adults are able to enter therapy and use speech as their main vehicle of communication, children participating in play therapy utilize many different forms of play to work through a variety of obstacles, including trauma, anxiety, depression, or even a major life transition.

Meredith Messina, registered play therapist and licensed professional counselor at Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, explained the different tools children have access to while in session.

“Artistic toys … there’s also kind of real-life play or nurturing play so there's typically a play kitchen, baby dolls, different things that they can use to act out or play through real life scenarios. There’s costumes…foam swords, different things for imaginative play, and then there's also things for aggressive play. If kids have anger or hard things that they want to work out then there’s sometimes a bop bag, something they can hit, something they can play in an aggressive way,” said Messina.

Play therapy is commonly used for children ages 3-12. These settings offer a safe space for children to engage in behavior and play they might not get to at home, while providing the parent or caregiver an opportunity to understand their child in new, more nuanced ways.

Emily Hagman, another registered play therapist and licensed clinical social worker in the Peoria area, said that as children are playing, there’s a whole assortment of connections and discoveries that are occurring simultaneously.

Play therapists Meredith Messina (left, LCPC) and Emily Hagman (right, LCSW)
Jody Holtz
Play therapists Meredith Messina (left, LCPC) and Emily Hagman (right, LCSW)

“They’re learning language, they’re learning about themselves, about others, social skills, imagination, emotions, so all of those things as they navigate their world, they’re playing through it,” explains Hagman.

The benefits of play are apparent outside of therapy settings as well. Play is something that’s universal. We are all born knowing how to play as part of our animalistic instincts. However, depending on the setting in which a child was raised, that instinct can come more easily for some than others, especially in an educational setting.

Erin Stout is the program director for Peoria County Bright Futures, a preschool-for-all program that operates under a play-based curriculum. She says some children that come through her program may not have any toys at home.

“They don’t really know how to play, so we can facilitate some of that … if you give them a box of manipulatives and they’ve never used toys before, they just dump it … but I think with good facilitation then that play grows with that child,” said Stout.

Erin Stout, program director for Peoria county Bright Futures
Erin Stout, program director for Peoria county Bright Futures

Every child is different; thus every child will play differently. However, a key component to making play successful across the board is fostering play that is child led. At Bright Futures, there are several different play centers that children have free range of, deciding what and when to play majority of the time.

“The children spend 75 minutes of a two-and-a-half-hour program in center-based play with free exploration. The teachers set those centers up to help engage those children in play activities, so that when they’re engaged … they may be learning social emotional skills, pre academic skills…taking turns, sharing, but it's the children exploring what they feel is most intriguing to them depending on where they’re at with their developmental needs,” explains Stout.

Letting play be spontaneous and open ended is the most productive way to ensure children are developing and learning in a creative way that suits their individuality. One nonprofit in Peoria is the center of fostering these open-ended play opportunities, while getting parents involved too.

The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum opened in 2015 with a mission to provide children with the tools and inspiration they need to be explorers and creators of the world. Director of the museum Rebecca Shulman says everything about the Playhouse, from the exhibits, to the programs, to the toys in the gift shop, are created and chosen with that mission in mind.

“We talk a lot about open-ended learning, so in general we prefer for example a project where we ask kids to build something that makes sound, as opposed to building something that we have predetermined and they are going through steps and choices that we have made,” Shulman said.

Rebecca Shulman, director of the Peoria Playhouse Children's Musuem
Rebecca Shulman, director of the Peoria Playhouse Children's Musuem

Empowering children by allowing them to make choices for themselves, whether that be how they interact with exhibits in the museum, or what project they choose to create in the Real Tools maker space, is a philosophy that is fully embraced by everyone at the Playhouse.

For some parents, this might be new to them, as often parents try to dictate how their children play with hopes that they’ll come to a certain conclusion or outcome. While there is certainly no ill intent behind this sort of play, it can end up making play time more stressful than fun. If there’s always a right or wrong way to play, children may be fearful of messing up, which limits their curiosity, creativity, and eventually kills the love of play.

“What we would love for parents to know is telling kids how to play or what choices to make is less productive…letting them figure it out, letting them figure out what they want to do and supporting them in it is really the best way that parents can facilitate children's learning,” said Shulman.

Figuring out what exactly this support looks like can be difficult, as there are many hesitations and questions around engaging in play as an adult. Some may find themselves to be too busy with work, making dinner, and other life factors. Others may think that playing is just for children or have a fear of looking silly. Whatever it may be, Messina says the importance of playing with your child is not something that should be overlooked.

“When a parent plays with a child, or a caregiver plays with a child… There's a huge connection that’s made, and when they attune to each other there’s a safety that’s created, that child is witnessed and feels more connected to their parent, and that allows them to feel more safe in the world.”

One parent who has had extensive experience playing with her children in this open-ended fashion is Heather Lauf. Lauf has been visiting the Peoria playhouse for the past three years and has two sons. She notes that as an adult, it’s easy to forget how to play sometimes.

Heather Lauf
Heather Lauf

“I have to try pretty hard to get into that different part of my brain, and almost thinking more like a child would where anything is possible and not taking as many of the preconceived ideas that maybe we have more as adults about what’s possible and what isn’t,” said Lauf.

She says within her own household, she tries to provide as many play options as possible to her children and let them choose from there. While she is available to foster the play, she isn’t dictating it herself.

“When kids learn in an interactive way that’s not necessarily looking at a screen, it brings in other components of learning like the social and emotional learning too, which is so important especially for the 0-5 age group…there’s a lot of growth that can happen and I think that especially with the more open ended play that happens at the Playhouse, it’s made my kids at least more comfortable with trying new things and more creative in general,’ Lauf said.

Hagman, a mother herself, notes that many parents may feel a pressure to be engaged and on all the time for their children, which can be tough to navigate. However, she offers a playing tip that parents can utilize to still be connected with their child while also taking a bit of a break themselves.

“There’s this thing that we do in play therapy where we reflect back what they’re doing, and it’s kind of like a sportscaster … and so if you’re tracking the child and reflecting what they’re doing your still engaged and you’re still with them but maybe you’re not doing it,” said Hagman.

For parents who are interested, Hagman and Messina will be teaming up with the Peoria Playhouse on March 6 to teach a “Play With Me” workshop on how to build strong parent-child relationships through play, with an opportunity to practice those skills at the playhouse right after.

But regardless of how someone plays, play is all about spontaneous fun and curiosity. The discoveries made through play help clue children in on who they are and who they might want to be one day, and as adults know, that journey of discovery never really ends, nor does the play associated with it.

You can also listen to Part 2 of this two-part report below:

Power of Play - Part 2
Listen to Part 2 of Jody Holtz's report on the power of play. This aired on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.