I’m concerned about some of the play themes of a 5-year-old in my program. They’re often about disasters or monsters. Other times they’re aggressive or about bullying. For instance, he likes to set up wooden blocks or other manipulatives, then wade through them, knocking them down while growling. I’m wondering whether the violence in his pretend dramas is normal and how to help guide him toward more friendly play.

 Children often play out what’s on their minds in their pretend dramas. A child’s destruction of a city made of wooden blocks could simply be related to something he saw on TV or experienced at school or in the family. Or, it may just reflect the way he is feeling at the moment. In addition, children’s nervous systems are organized in such a way that a child who is active and a risk-taker will naturally crave lots of sensation. This child would be attracted to risky or aggressive themes. Conversely, a more over-sensitive child, or one who overreacts to sensations such as light and sound, is more cautious and would likely choose themes having to do more with fear and caution.

Try Broadening Interests
The goal of the teacher and the parent is always to help the child broaden his interests and play to embrace all the themes of life. If the child is playing out aggression, for instance, you want to help him also play out warmth, love, and healing, such as doctors helping sick or hurt people, or mommies feeding babies. If the child plays out only cautious tea parties, you want to help her be more adventurous and assertive in her play, even including some conflict or danger. Here are some keys to helping the child broaden his horizons and play themes:

Play on the floor with the child. Left alone, a child may choose to continue playing out his violent themes. By interacting on his level, you can incorporate yourself into the drama and create together. Get down among the blocks and build a city alongside him. Pick up an action figure and give it a voice as it walks through the streets and talks with other action figures.  

Teach the child to empathize through your actions. A child learns about the world of feelings from the way you relate to him. When you empathize with the emotions he displays during aggressive play, you actually teach him to empathize, as well. Even if you dislike the theme of his play, demonstrating that you understand his feelings will help him understand his own feelings and those of others. If his toy soldiers kill each other, for example, try saying, “Boy, those soldiers are really angry at each other.” When a monster wades through the blocks, say, “That monster was very powerful.” In time, you’ll see his empathy come out in play and in the way he relates to you and others.

Fill in the missing themes. Once you’ve been on the floor and empathizing for a few weeks, try guiding the narrative of the child’s play themes towards a positive outcome. In other words, expand his play. After acknowledging the monster’s power, for instance, your character can play a doctor and begin helping the victims of the monster’s rampage.
What You Can Do
  • Before working with the child to create a more favorable balance, it’s important to review what’s happening in his life to see what might be stirring up certain kinds of experiences or feelings. If, for example, a child is being bullied at school, or by a sibling at home, try to change that situation.  
  • Be alert to the way you relate to the child. Help him experience his emotions, especially if he’s not showing any feelings. Again, you do this by expanding play and introducing new emotions through your characters.
  • For an older child who is very verbal, attempt to have a discussion about why he likes certain kinds of stories more than others. Be sure to listen with understanding, rather than judging and insisting on change. The words “I don’t like that kind of talk,” should be left out of the conversation because that is the opposite of empathy. Remember the child learns through the way you relate to her. It is not so much what you say, but what you do. ECT