by Jillian Kelly, LCSW, RPT, who is delighted to share with you a bit about early childhood development, Play therapy, and ways to engage in playful routine while creating rituals for connection with your child as you look toward the school year (and homework time) ahead! 

Prefer to listen? Click to hear Jillian on our podcast.

What is Play therapy?

Play therapy is a type of therapy within the world of child mental health treatment. In Play therapy, toys are considered the child’s words. This includes specifically symbolic miniatures/actions figures, puppets, and doll houses. Children’s play themes are their language. It’s a powerful tool for addressing a young child’s inner world of emotion. Additionally, this helps them to process their experiences.  All children are under some degree of stress simply because of the developmental issues they are working to resolve. They may also have experienced a trauma like loss or abuse, or an adjustment like moving houses or welcoming a new baby into the family.

Young children do not have the cognitive or language skills to formulate questions and express their needs directly. Therefore, they often (rather creatively!) ask their questions through behavior (mainly misbehavior!). Play therapy can help to give children a safe space to process their feelings and regain trust in their caregivers, in themselves, and in their worlds. Through Play therapy, children are able to externalize, symbolize, and miniaturize their inner worlds. 

How can parents engage in child-directed play at home?

All children need some time each day to be in control. Play time is a natural time for this! 

Here are some encouragements and considerations. First of all, set aside 20-30 minutes each day for this type of child-directed play time (ideally around the same time each day for consistency). Also, if possible, get down on the floor so that you are on the same level as your child, bearing witness to all that unfolds. Finally, think of being in noticing mode instead of being in teaching, judging, or evaluating modes. This means just granting yourself the joyful experience of sitting back and following your child’s lead;

Reflect, reflect, reflect.

If your child has invited you into their play time (and surely they will!), reflect what you see, reflect what you notice, and reflect underlying feelings.

For example, if the play theme that develops is your child taking on the role of a brave prince fighting off a fire-breathing dragon puppet, you can start by reflecting: “I see that this prince is so strong and powerful!” Since children often play out stressful situations that they’ve experienced throughout the day, if you notice content that is kicking up lots of feelings you can take it to the next level by reflecting: “Oh my, I notice that brave prince is trying so hard to defeat that sneaky fire-breathing dragon.”

Since children may use play to go even further in showing you the depth of their feelings, you can take it to the next level by reflecting what the underlying feelings could be (all while staying in metaphor here!). For instance, “Oh brave prince, you may be feeling so powerless fighting against this fire breathing dragon. I wonder what will happen next? Remember I am right here for you and feel so proud of you.” What may seem like a simple battle scene can actually be quite a powerful release and communication for children. Above all, this enriches the parent-child relationship in ways that direct conversation cannot access.

What’s the difference between routines and rituals?

The goal of routines is continuity. Routines are essential in helping children create and regulate their own internal clocks, given that our brains are pattern-seeking devices. However, when parents get caught up in daily tasks and overemphasize the mechanics of routine, they lose sight of connecting with their children. What they end up giving attention to is when children do something special or conversely get in trouble. Meanwhile, children learn that they only receive our undivided attention if they’re special or misbehaving.

This is why we need rituals! The goal of rituals is connection. They create a time and space designated for togetherness, playfulness, and a “be-with” attitude. Children learn that they don’t have to do anything special or attention-seeking to get your undivided attention; they just have to be who they naturally are in that moment. 

Psychologist Becky Bailey has a wonderful book, I Love You Rituals. I highly recommend it to help you in creating rituals for connection. An example from her book takes under 2 minutes and helps with the transition from school to home. It’s called “What Did You Bring Home from School Today?” She instructs the parents to greet their child being attuned through eye contact, touch, and connectedness and to say something like: “Hey, there you are. I’ve been waiting all day to hug you. Let me see what you brought home from school. You brought those blue eyes…You brought your backpack and your coat. You brought your warm little hand. Let me hold that hand and let’s go home together.” Before moving on with your day, this moment of connectedness lays the foundation for everything to come afterward. 

Are tantrums really a sign of good things?!

In my practice, I encourage parents to remember that a tantrum is a young child’s attempt at a request for help. The release of pent-up emotions that come along with a tantrum is actually really quite healthy and good for a young child! Here’s a helpful visual: picture the child’s inner emotional container as a pressure cooker of sorts; children need a powerful release of steam to let go of emotion accumulated throughout the day. 

I’m often asked about tips and tactics for addressing tantrums. In my opinion, the very best is for a parent to show up to the tantrum as calm, confident, clear, and caring. Do NOT beat yourself up as a parent. In short, all children tantrum. As children learn to navigate strong emotions, they need to know that their parents can handle it and love them in their yuckiest, most out of control moments.

We are like mirror images to a child in upset. Our own calm and well-being will reflect that. I like to remember an acronym “SOOTHE” (credit goes to the wonderful play therapist Paris Goodyear Brown, LCSW, RPT-S): “S: soft tone of voice and tone of face (since children pick-up on our facial expressions too!), O= organize the child’s experience, O= offer choices, T= touch for togetherness, H = hear the underlying concern, E = end it and let it go.”

How can I make homework time a shared opportunity for connectedness?

Child development and learning occur in cycles. There is a unique pace to each child’s life. Sometimes it is quick and intense, sometimes slow and calm. Growing in cycles means that we have lots of opportunities to learn something. I encourage parents to remember that raising well-rounded, healthy children is supreme to raising always winning, successful ones. Psychologist Alison Gopnik’s book The Carpenter and The Gardener spells this out beautifully; it’s one of my favorite reads! 

That being said, here are some considerations for making homework an enjoyable time for you and your child:

Creating Rituals for Connection

Parental mindset is key! Coming to the table with your own calm attitude will be the foundation. A bit of advice from my own wonderful mama (a veteran 2nd grade teacher) is to consider that in doing homework with your child, it is actually an extension of their school day. This is an opportunity for you to hear from your child all about what they learned and to connect with how they felt about what they learned.

Use of routines.

For example, create a regular time for homework to help regulate a child’s internal clock. Offer a healthy snack to boost energy. In addition, provide a clean and organized space that signals “homework zone” to decrease distraction.

Use of rituals.

Use a soothing sensory tool to mark the beginning of homework time. For example, this could be a gentle hand massage or other game that encourages eye contact and physical contact. In addition, you can sing a special song or engage in a special dance that marks the beginning and ending of homework time.

Practice coping skills.

Offer occasional “brain breaks” to practice healthy coping skills you want to instill in your child. For example, fun breathing exercises with bubbles or yoga poses can get oxygen flowing.

Reflect, reflect, reflect!

If you’re observing that your child is becoming frustrated at their abilities and competencies try using noticing types of reflections. For example, “I see you trying your best. This is challenging, yet you’re not giving up!” Noticing helps children become aware of themselves. Self-awareness is a building block for developing self-control and self-confidence.

Celebrate the effort not the outcome.

When something graded comes home in your child’s backpack, stick up that assignment you know the child worked hard on — not necessarily the one that scored the highest. Celebrating a hard earned C builds more character than celebrating an easy earned A. It sends the message that, if they tried their best, you respect the effort not the outcome.

In conclusion, you can use the tools I mentioned to engage in playful routine while creating rituals for connection with your child as you look toward the school year (and homework time) ahead! 


Jillian is a psychotherapist working with children (age 3-10) and their families. Prior to opening her practice, she worked in community mental health centers with at-risk children in the south Bronx in New York City for nearly a decade. Jillian’s education and advanced training includes a Master’s degree from Columbia University School of Social Work, completion of a fellowship with the National Health Service Corps, certification in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF CBT), and completion of post-graduate training to become a Registered Play Therapist (RPT).

She is a graduate of the Association for Play Therapy’s Leadership Academy and she has served as a Board Director and Vice President of the New York Association for Play Therapy. Jillian has taught as an Adjunct Lecturer on the topics of Play Therapy, Trauma, and Resilience, has co-authored several publications. She is a frequent presenter in the topics of Play and Expressive Arts Therapies nationally, and recently internationally! Most importantly, Jillian respects and delights in the work of accompanying children on their journeys through hard times: from expressing big feelings, to uncovering bravery, setting healthy boundaries, and ultimately healing.

You can visit her website, www.AshevilleChildTherapy.com, to learn more about Play therapy if you’re local to Asheville, NC! You can also check out the national membership website to find a Play therapist in your area, www.A4PT.org.