You may have heard the term “special time” and wondered what it means? Surely all the time we spend with our children is special? As it happens the familiar adage “quality vs quantity” is as relevant as ever to time spent interacting with our children. In the Mindful Parenting groups at Well Baby Center the first portion is spent recreating “special time” during a 20-minute observation period. Parents often give feedback that this is the only time during the week that they get to sit back and really watch their child’s play. There is no dinner to cook, no phone call to make, no bills to pay, the only requirement is to observe. When practiced at home this observation period becomes “special time” that you and your child can look forward to each day as a way to reconnect after a separation, either emotional or physical.
Often parents feel it is their job to teach their child or take the lead in play. In fact non-directed play that is led by the child is a major cornerstone in their sustaining healthy emotional development and a secure attachment relationship with their caregiver. Parents often feel that they are not doing enough, however, far from being passive during this time, parents’ minds are actively engaged, watching and noticing their child’s play from a place of curiosity and reflection. It helps to consider that play is often symbolic and an essential outlet for children to express their emotions and work through difficult experiences. Play is their communication, particularly in the early years when they are not yet talking. If the caregiver is available to witness this play and reflect on its meaning, the child will feel supported and cared for. Even if the meaning of the play is not obvious the child feels the effort and the connection from their caregiver in their attempts to understand. Many parents have found that implementing regular “special time” resolves many relational issues as their children begin to feel more secure in the knowledge that they can rely on their parent’s attention towards their inner world.
Here are 5 steps to creating the right environment for “special time”.
- Set aside 20 minutes/day when there are no interruptions. Be sure to do the play during a time when you and your child are well rested and you don’t have other things to worry about. Mute your telephone. Be sure that your child’s physical needs such as toileting and feeding are met so that you won’t need to stop the play to take care of these needs. Put things out of reach that you don’t want your child to play with (e.g., business papers or fragile objects). Use an area that is childproof and where there are few prohibitions or limits that you might have to set. If there are siblings, make certain this time is set aside for just you are this child alone. Let your child know that he or she is getting “special time” with you. Get on the floor with your child and try to stay close to your child so that she can see your face and you can see what she is doing.
- Let your child take the lead and initiate what happens. Anything that your child does is acceptable, except for hurting himself or you or destroying toys and materials. If your child wants to throw toys, put out soft things that are okay to throw, like soft balls, stuffed animals or beanbags. Do not judge your child. Play with your child however he wants to play. Discover what he wants from you or may be trying to communicate during this time. Be curious! Does he want you to admire him? To imitate him? To understand something for which he is struggling. Try out what you think he wants from you and watch his reaction. Does he give you a big hug? Does he calm down? Does he seem happier? Does he seem relieved that you finally understand him? See if your child starts to notice you and begin to interact more. Respond to what your child is doing, but don’t take over the play.
- Watch, wait, and wonder about what your child is doing. Think about what your child is getting out of doing a particular activity. Enter her world and reflect on what her experience of it and you might be. Use narration technique to say what you think is going on with her. Observing your child is the first step to providing a foundation of good listening called reflective listening — essential for growing security of attachment in early parent child relationships.
- Begin to narrate your child’s play by making simple, observational comments about what you are seeing e.g. ‘you lined all your cars up in a row and then raced them over to the wall’. These statements let your child know that you are paying attention but do not direct their experience. You may also ask simple questions to clarify what is happening, and maybe use your observations to bridge play if your child moves from one play topic to another without a sense of completion e.g. ‘what happened to the dinosaur? I thought he was hungry’.
- Remember that special time is not a teaching time. Try to avoid praising while you play. You want the motivation and pleasure of doing things together and exploring the world of thinking, imagining, and expressing to come from within the child instead of from a need to get rewarded in the form of praise from you, that is, rather than because you are encouraging these actions through praise or reinforcement. There is no right or wrong way to play with toys.
(adapted from Georgia de Gangi, 2000)
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.