5 Specific Examples for How to Apply Play as Discipline

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Woman and child playing hide and seek in summer parkPlay is more than fun. It’s language. It’s communication. It’s a laboratory for life. It opens the imagination and introduces us to great possibilities. This isn’t just true for kids. We all love to play. What we play as we grow often changes, but play continues to be an important part of life. It inspires and motivates. Play is one of the greatest catalysts for growth and happiness.

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You asked…

There was an incredible response to my recent article, “How to use Play as Discipline.” Many readers asked for more examples of how to actually use play as a method for teaching our children in proactive, positive and preventative ways. This follow up article will provide several practical and specific examples of disciplinary issues that can be addressed through play, without the fights, arguments or bad feelings.

5 Scenarios you might face

1. Teach Table manners:


Many parents complain of a struggle at the dinner table that seems almost inevitable as kids start to feed themselves. They are up and down in their chairs. They reach across the table to grab the rolls. They complain about the food or refuse to eat. They make loud noises and demand, “Get me water.” Parents struggle to intervene and teach basic table manners. After asking over and over again to “sit down, use your inside voice or say please,” the situation often escalates. Sometimes they comply, sometimes voices raise, arguments begin and dinner doesn’t seem to taste as good as it should.

Play as discipline:

There are so many play opportunities to practice appropriate table manners. No matter whether your child is boy or girl, having a tea or dinner party with their stuffed animals, action figures, or rock collection can be a perfect laboratory for learning and practicing appropriate ways to act at the dinner table. Sit down with your child at their table and ask them how they would like their guests to act at the table. Model manners and ask them if you can take turns being the host or hostess that gets to serve the food and drink. If one of the characters at the table is acting up, ask your child what they might do to use polite manners.

2. Teach them to follow instructions/pay attention:


“They never listen!” This is a common exclamation of frustrated parents. The scenario looks something like this. Your child is watching his after school cartoons and you ask him to stop and go clean his room or finish his homework. He seems not to even hear you. Most of the time it’s not that he doesn’t hear, it’s that he doesn’t comply. Other times we give a simple list of 2 or 3 things you would like them to accomplish and come back to the room only five minutes later to find them distracted and the task undone. In this case, kids often struggle to pay attention and maintain that attention throughout a requested task.

Play as discipline:

If your child is struggling to attend and follow directions, there are a myriad of games and playful exercises that teach and even help to increase brain capacity for attention and following directions. Simple games like “Simon says” and “Red light Green Light” are quick and fun. Inviting our kids to do small tasks in a play situation over time can help to increase compliance at other times. The following three activities are also good for challenging attention and following directions.

  • The cup game: Take three small cups that are the same (same color, size and not see through). Place an M&M under one of the cups and then move and weave the cups through each other. Ask your child to watch the cup with the M&M under it. Keep track of how many times you move the cups. Start with a number of moves that is doable for your child. Each time they guess the right cup repeat the process, increasing the number of times the cups are moved before they get to guess and get the M&M. (You can use whatever treat you want. This game is especially effective and helpful for children with very short attention spans.)
  • Can you draw what I’m drawing?: This game is great with kids that love to draw. Both you and your child need a blank piece of paper and something to draw with (Pen, pencil, markers, crayons, etc.). Put a wall or blind between you and your child so that neither one can see the other’s paper. Take turns describing to your child what you are drawing while they follow the instructions and attempt to draw the same thing. Then switch roles. Be as specific as possible, using very clear directions like, “Draw a small circle in the top right hand corner. Now, draw a wavy line, about a pinky length from the bottom of the page, from one side, all the way to the other side.” You’ll find that it is very difficult to give directions that are easily understood and interpreted. Talk with your child about what it was like, both to receive the instructions and to give them. It becomes a great springboard for talking about clear communication, listening to each other and following daily instructions in the home.
  • Add on: You can play add on just about anywhere. You can do it with spoken and written words, body movements or anything else you can think of. The concept is to start with one word, actions, etc. The other person then adds on to that word or action. Each individual playing the game listens or watches carefully and tries to remember and say/do each of the words or actions in the correct sequence. This can be played with just you and your child or in a group. This game challenges both kids and adults to listen carefully and extend their attention and memory to follow the directives.

3. Teach them to manage anger/aggression:


Everyone always talks about teaching young children new ways to express and manage their “big emotions,” but what does that look like in practice? I’m sure everyone reading this has experienced the wrath of their 3 or 4 year old, or any age really. Kids’ emotional regulation centers of the brain are not fully developed for a long time. Parents often have to act as external emotional regulators by calming ourselves and acting in calm and soothing ways, even when the kids have lost their cool. With that said, even though kid’s anger management, impulse control and emotional regulation capacity are not completely developed until they are ready to leave our keeping, that does not mean that there cannot be significant growth in these abilities. When we help them learn skills and model these ourselves, development happens more quickly and is more advanced at younger ages.

Play as discipline:

This is one of my favorites! Anger and aggressive behavior are one of those things that parents are always struggling to figure out how to deal with. A couple things to remember before we dive into specific play interventions is, first, anger is a normal emotion that everyone feels at some time, second, kids struggle developmentally to manage their responses to anger and third, the hardest time to teach the skills they need to productively express anger is during the heated moment. The follow activities are ways you can address anger and teach a better way during the good times.

  • Creative play: Creative play outlets like play dough, legos, art and music are excellent ways to discuss feeling in a natural and fun way. You can ask your child to create some thing that makes them mad or frustrated or something that represents how they feel when they are angry. They can draw their emotions, any way they want to. These kinds of creative play are emotionally expressive and can help us understand motives and ways to help them with their anger when they are in the middle of it or can help them find ways to understand and deal with their feelings.
  • Imaginative role playing: Any kind of figure play can be used as a way to role play through problems or conflicts and find proactive solutions. The awesome thing about this is that it addresses the issues without making the child feel attacked or defensive. You can set up an argument between GI Joes or a conflict between family members in the doll house. Then you can ask questions like, “What does the Duke like to do to help him feel better?” Or “How do you think they can work together?”
  • Relaxation and coping play: There are some great ways to teach kids how to do deep relaxation breathing and other relaxation skills. Blowing bubbles can be an effective way for kids to better understand how to breathe deeply and then to regulate the breath as they exhale. You can also make a list of yours and their favorite games, toys or activities and post them. Then randomly select one of them when you are stressed or frustrated to model positive distraction and coping skills. Redirect and encourage them to use these “go to” activities when they get upset.
  • Problem solving games: Playing match with pictures of actual people’s faces is an amazing game that helps to develop emotional regulation centers in the brain. Other problem solving games where kids are required to work through a problem and find alternative actions and solutions also help kids to see the bigger picture and develop better decision making skills.
  • Social stories and skills reading: Read books that teach about emotions or tell stories that you build upon each step and anticipate cause and effect relationships. I Love the book, “Mouse was Mad” by Linda Urban.

4. Teach Polite and kind language and communication:


“Your stupid!” “I know you are but what am I?” You may have heard something like this come from your children’s mouths at some time. Some of you may be thinking, “Are you kidding, that is mild,” while other parents with kids that aren’t talking yet are thinking, “My child will never talk like that!” None of us enjoy being “sassed” or “disrespected.” It can really grate on our nerves when our kids are talking rudely to one another, but it seems like demanding it stop “right this minute” is unenforceable and usually breeds further disrespect from the kids and often from the parent too. Teaching kind and respectful words through play may not change everything overnight but it will make a difference and will build long lasting growth and cycles of respect.

Play as discipline:

Try these activities to teach kind, polite and respectful language.

  • Deliberate Modeling during play of your child’s choice: Just play something of your child’s choosing. Let them lead the game or play activity. The biggest tip to address issues of disrespectful language is simply to model respectful talk and interactions. Be polite. Say please, thank you and excuse me. Wait your turn and be kind. Try to cut out the sarcasm or negative remarks. Be conscious of how you are acting and talking. When kids are playing, they are sponges and will soak up the modeled behavior.
  • Compliment Hot Potato: This is exactly what it sounds like. Play hot potato but as you or your kids catch the potato they have to say something nice about someone else in the group.
  • Board games: Boundaries are already built in to playing board games. There are predetermined rules and expectations. Playing Board games can reinforce polite interactions.

5. Teach them to set goals and follow through with difficult tasks:


I’ve heard that not every child in the world is always uber-motivated to complete chores or homework. Sometimes kids struggles to complete long or difficult tasks. When kids get frustrated and have a hard time delaying gratification, simple daily tasks can become miserable, for both the child and the parent.

Play as discipline:

There is incredible value in finding play activities that require prolonged effort. They should be fun and interesting to the child but should pose a challenge. You can help them to identify personal goals and objectives of what they want to accomplish through their play activity and help them to achieve it. I just finished writing a guest post on how to build a fort in your back yard that also builds character in your child. Building things like forts, castles, obstacle courses, or anything else that interests them can be excellent ways to encourage and teach them how to set goals and enjoy actively working toward them. Try these or find other activities that are customized to your child’s interests.

  • Building a fort: Building a real fort, made of real wood and nails is a task that will take more than a couple hours or even one afternoon. As your kids help with building the fort, they can see their goals in action, the progress and the realization of their achievement. Other activities that teach motivation and goal setting might include: making a craft, creating a lego creation, learning to dance or anything else that takes multiple sessions to complete.

One last thing to remember is that, apart from teaching our children and proactively dealing with ongoing negative cycles in more positive ways through play, play is also for you as a parent. Play is fun. Play helps us see our whole child and all of their beautiful innocence. It helps us connect, even if that means to simply watch them play. Play, with no other motive than just being together in a happy environment and spending time in our child’s world, can have far reaching affects on influence and relationship.

I recently watched the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” and was touched by a song from the musical “Mary Poppins” that frankly, I had never liked before. At the end of Mary Poppins, Mr. and Mrs. Banks come home and the movie concludes with “Let’s go Fly a Kite.” The magical nanny’s job is not complete until the children’s father comes home to play with them. Play is an excellent way to fulfill all three of the essential TRU principles of Teaching, Relationship and Upgrading ourselves all in one act.

Question: What struggles are you having that you would like play ideas that help to teach and deal with that issue?

If you liked this article, and know someone who would benefit from it, please LIKE and SHARE it on Facebook, other social media or just send them an email. You may also like the following articles. “How to Use Play as Discipline” or any of the articles pictured below.

Don’t forget to download your FREE copy of “5 Jump Starters for Powerful Family Cycles: Creating Happier and More Effective Parenting THIS Week!”

Some other great resource for activity ideas and play as discipline is “Playful Parenting” and “Playwise” by Denise Chapman Weston and Mark S. Weston as well as the book “Playful Parenting” by Lawrence J. Cohen.

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