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In this blog, you see a parent and educator’s perspective on raising resilient kids through play-based learning.
As a parent of two, and an educator of over 15 years working with every age group from babies through high schoolers, I have come to realize that though my education journey started with the intent of teaching high schoolers to love literature and writing as much as I did, it ended with something more basic.
It didn't matter to me if my own children were smart, or tall, or good-looking. I wanted them to be resilient. I realized I wanted to help all children, not just the ones living in my house, become resilient.
Resilience is the ability to keep trying even when something is hard. It’s the ability to keep jogging along when things go wrong. It’s the ability to problem-solve and persevere and get gritty. It is one characteristic shared by most superheroes and protagonists. And it is one of the top indicators of success—academic and otherwise.
Watch a Ted Talk by Angela Lee Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania,
speaking on the importance of traits like grit and perseverance
I would love to say I was able to positively impact all my students, but it isn’t true. A lot of my top-performing students would likely have been successful whether or not they ended up in my 11th grade College- Prep English Literature course. I may have contributed to them continuing to thrive, but many of them were already on a pathway to success. Why? Because of resilience.
Some students were more likely to be successful at almost anything they focused their efforts on due to the resiliency built up throughout their infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool years. A large part of that has to do with how the adults closest to them helped to socialize and responded to moments of frustration or disappointment, and whether they had enough opportunities to practice their resiliency skills.
Caregivers and teachers alike can increase opportunities for children to develop resiliency by increasing opportunities where kids have intrinsic motivation to try again when they fail. This is through play.
Even if my four-year-old fails 10 times in a row while trying to defeat a level in a cooperative board game he will not spend even a minute of his time complaining or crying about not succeeding. Feelings of sadness or anger are easier to overcome when he is focused on playing.
When you introduce play with socialization, adults have the power to shape a child’s resiliency through the way they respond or choose not to respond. The way adults respond to children in moments of distress, failure, or disappointment makes a huge difference in how they deal with these moments on their own in the future.
According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Professor of Child Health and Development and Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, Play-Based Learning begins in infancy.
Simple actions like making eye contact, smiling, cooing, and passing items are ways babies and adults can use play to begin building resilience in children. For a baby, actively exploring, being curious, trying new things, and observing the reactions that result from what they try are all ways for them to play.
As babies grow older, resilience becomes more obvious in children attempting to crawl to grab a toy, walk after falling down, or repeat a word to get the attention of an adult.
Caregivers and adults can build resilience in children by offering encouragement through positive interaction (e.g., clapping, cheering, wiggling a toy, or calling a child’s name) and creating safe environments (e.g., creating routine, demonstrating that falling on a cushioned play mat isn’t painful, or responding with empathy and understand by feelings children may be feeling.)
Young children do a great deal of learning through sensory exploration. This helps them to feel empowered to play their own way by manipulating sensory materials.
Creating a sensory box based on a theme, such as dinosaurs and prehistoric plants in a sandbox, or plastic ocean bath toys in a gelatin tub are great ways to get kids started. But the sensory items alone are only a piece of the puzzle. Adults can respond to children as they play by highlighting problem-solving opportunities for children to explore.
You can say:
|"Oh no, Trixie the Triceratops can’t reach the fruit on the top of the tree! What do you think she could do? Could she ask someone tall for help? Can you show me a tall dinosaur?"|
This helps build resiliency by having the child take part in solving a problem. Rather than giving up, we are helping to develop the child’s problem-solving skills by finding a solution. By having the child participate in the solution, they will be better prepared to tackle problems they may face in their own lives, like asking a tall adult to help when they can’t reach a flower in a tree or a book off a shelf.
Sometimes children feel scared about situations they don’t have experience with, such as being in a new place, meeting a new person, or trying a new experience. This can feel overwhelming.
Like a dress rehearsal for a show or practice for a speech, kids need practice to know what to expect, as well! They also need opportunities to get it wrong without scary consequences.
Puppets or stuffed animals are great versatile, comforting tools to help children practice new experiences. Maybe kids will be going to the movie theater for the first time, and they can help the stuffed animals go to the movie theater at home, first! Let them practice, risk-free, in the consequences that might occur if you don’t go to the restroom first, or if you are too loud during the movie.
You can even use puppets or stuffed animals to revisit a conflict situation that occurred to help children practice better choices for next time. When my daughter was 4, she used to pinch her little brother rather than using her words. We would use puppets to practice words we could say instead of using our bodies to try to solve problems.
Below are some tried and true steps you can take to help kids learn resilience from structured social activities, such as games.
Before playing, let kids know that losing can be part of the fun. When we lose, we will lose as a group, but the fun of a game is knowing that sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose, but we can get better. Verbalize what feelings may occur, and what appropriate and inappropriate reactions may be.
When talking about losing a game, you can say:
|“Sometimes when I lose, I get angry. But when I’m angry, do you think it’s okay for me to throw the pieces? No. That could hurt someone. Do you think it’s okay for me to scream? No. That might hurt people’s ears. When I'm angry, I like to take some space away from the game, drink some cold water, or take a deep breath. What can you do to help yourself feel calm?”|
When talking about winning a game, you can say:
|“Sometimes when I win, I get excited. But even if I’m excited, do you think it’s okay for me to say mean things to the people who didn’t win? No. That might hurt their feelings. Do you think it’s okay for me to run around screaming? No. That can hurt people’s ears. A safe way for me to show I'm excited is by sharing my feelings. I can say 'Yay, I did it! I feel proud!' I can give my friends a hug, or high-five other people and tell them 'good game!' Let's practice safe ways to show we are excited!”|
It is normal and healthy to be sad, angry, or disappointed when we lose, or excited and proud when we win. It is important that we help children label their emotions and accept their emotions using a calm, neutral tone.
You can say:
|“Wow, that was a loud noise, and I saw you cross your arms. Are you angry because we lost? That’s okay. I’m here if you want to talk about those feelings.”|
|“Wow, that is a lot of screaming and running around. Are you excited that we won? It feels so good when we win a game, and you can let me know with your words!”|
Strong emotions may occur during play, whether it is over winning or losing, feelings regarding rules, or boo-boos. Before any teaching can occur, the child must first calm down. When the brain feels strong emotions, it cannot learn and process information. Older or advanced children may be able to regulate on their own, but many young children will need guidance on what they can do to calm down. Part of this might be offering regulation strategies or tools, or even pre-teaching regulation techniques like taking deep breaths or space away from the game before play begins.
While all emotions are normal and healthy, we can still help build traits such as resilience, kindness, and humility through the way we respond to children’s behavior.
You can say:
|“I get that you are angry that we lost. I feel angry about losing, sometimes, too. But throwing things or hitting is never okay. Now that you are calm, let’s think about some safe ways we can express our anger the next time we feel angry.”|
|“I can see that you are excited about winning. I’m excited, too. But when you scream, you might hurt people’s ears. Next time we are excited, we can pat our back or high-five. Do you want to try them out with me to see which one you like better?”|
Part of building resilience is through modeling and feedback of desired language and behavior.
You can say:
|“I loved how even though it was hard, you kept trying all the way to the end!”|
|“I loved how you shared kind words with your friend to encourage and help them! Thank you for being a good friend.”|
⬇️ Comment below on how you’ve helped young kids build resilience, or how you’ve used play when teaching resiliency.
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