The theme of Neufeld Institute Conference 2022 is the recovery of well-being, especially during and after times of stress. Given the central role of play in this process, we asked some of our conference presenters to share stories that provide a glimpse of play at work. The following are three of the stories that were submitted.

From Robin Brooks-Sheriff (Canada)
It was March 2020 and there was a growing sense of unease. Could this actually be happening? How serious is it? Surely, we have the technology, the political will, the military – something?! – to stop this tiny little virus? But, we didn’t, and the world came to a screeching halt. While we have all experienced trials, hardships and frustrations in the last two years, those first few weeks were unparalleled in terms of the fear and alarm.

I had no idea how to explain this to my sixteen-year-old daughter, or how to reassure her. Overnight, her world shrank to our house and she felt she might accidentally kill someone if she ventured out and contracted the virus. I could barely contain my own alarm let alone mitigate hers. Fortunately, while her dad and I sat stunned on the couch watching endless news cycles, my daughter headed for her paints. A few hours later, she completed a piece,“Pandemic Panic,” which involved puffball creatures with panicked eyes. We all agreed that it fit the mood perfectly. Over the next days and weeks, she painted, drew, created and crafted everything she could get her hands on. Some creations were dark and foreboding, some light and playful.

When talking to my brother, I discovered his teenage girls were doing the same thing. Shoes were being dyed rainbow colours, t-shirts painted, jeans covered in rhinestones. The running joke was that we would all emerge from lockdown bedazzled and tye-dyed.

The answer for our teenagers that spring was play; it happened spontaneously. Play was the only answer to this insane and scary moment. It created a bubble in time and space in which the alarming realities were suspended. I could sense that I better stay out of the way. This wasn’t just entertainment–this was important, engaging and, yes, therapeutic. I showed up with snacks, scrounged for art supplies, and let my daughter get on with it. There was nothing else I needed to do: Nature was taking care of her in the best way possible.

From Jodi Bergman (Canada)
My youngest is turning 17 this month and quickly moving into adulthood, so I appreciate this opportunity to sit back and reflect on how play became an essential parenting resource for me as I searched for ways to engage my gaggle of young children.

Dr. Neufeld shared that singing and music are a playground for emotion. This makes me think of my middle daughter, who was very precocious and playful as a young one. Singing with her was one of the few ways we could move through our day with ease. Through her initiative we had a song for clean-up, bedtime, waking up and goodbyes. We had a song for getting dressed, feeding the dog and bathtime … and the list went on and on.

As she moved into her teen years, the conversation got a little more strained. Her iPod became a constant, with earphones canceling the outside world. I struggled to engage her in conversation and was at a loss to figure out how to reach her until I remembered her passion for musical expression. The next day during our usually silent walk together, I asked her to share her playlist. Over the next while, she evolved from simply sharing her music to singing her favourite songs to sharing her original lyrics. Walking together and listening to her sing a song that reflected her mood became a ritual for us. It got us through a few tough years and offered both of us joy and a place for emotional release.

My daughter is grown up now and off in her adulting world. We still have precious moments together, though, when we walk or spend time in a car together, singing through her new and old playlists.

From Elana Strobinsky (Israel)
Some children are born with a heightened awareness of the world around them and quite often find themselves in a general state of alarm. This was the case with one of my sons, who developed compulsive symptoms at a very young age. The world of play was an essential part of supporting my son’s anxiety in moving freely and, eventually, in coming to rest. I danced him in and out of rooms, to and from the car, in the tempo of his compulsive steps. We moved through parts of the day together this way. As we connected and gave physical expression to the alarm, eventually, it drained.

In my work as a school psychologist, I often ask the children I work with: “If we invite that feeling that fills you up into the room and to sit it down in that chair, what would it look like? What would it say? What shape/colour does it have?” For many of them this is the first opportunity to play with their anxiety in a safe place. Dalia, a sweet 2nd grader told me, “[My feeling] wouldn’t sit still in that chair at all! It would bounce all over the place and make a huge mess!” That allowed us to joke about all the things in the room that would be messed up.

The beauty of play is also the effect that it has on us, as children’s caregivers. Children in alarm trigger our alarm as well, which creates even more alarm in the child, continuing the vicious cycle. When we play with their alarm with them, we also create a safe place for our own strong emotions. That way they don’t get in the way of our attachment, which is an essential element in the long term answer for anxiety in children. So when in doubt, you might want to “play it out”!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our presenters have been busy cooking up a feast of panels, breakout sessions and keynotes for our 2022 online conference – and we hope that you will join us for the banquet from May 12-14, 2022!

Robin’s presentation:
B5 – My Teenager is Stuck in the Basement! Behaviours that Worry Us and Finding the Way Through

Jodi’s presentations:
B3 – Bouncing Back: Creating the Needed Rituals and Routines
C2 – Helping Children Bounce Back from Divorce

Elana’s presentation:
E1 – Bouncing Back as Students

To learn more about these presentations (and many more!), visit the Schedule & Sessions page on the Neufeld Institute Conference 2022 website for full descriptions and to register.

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