- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Experts who study children's play have a word of advice for parents who worry their youngsters are playing too violently relax.

Children, therapists say, are more forceful and aggressive during playtime than they are in "real life." This is especially true of little boys.

"Children naturally bring out fairly high levels of aggressiveness and control in play," says William Nordling, a child psychologist with the Bethesda-based National Institute for Relationship Enhancement. "This kind of aggressive play generally shouldn't be alarming for parents."

Not only that, he says, but parents who tend to jump in and interrupt a game of cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians can be harming their children in the long run.

"Within play, this seems to be a healthy way for children to work through issues that they have," Mr. Nordling says. "Aggression and bossy kinds of play help children to exert control and to have some sense of control over their life. Even play in nontherapeutic settings, aggression is a natural way of communication for children to work through issues and grow in their personalities."

Louise Guerney, a Bethesda play therapist, says parents need to look at children's play as an expression of their needs and not necessarily a warning flag that they are about to erupt.

"It's hard for us to watch, as parents, because we feel responsible for helping them do things better," says Mrs. Guerney, a pioneer in the field of filial therapy (parents playing therapeutically with their children).

"If they're acting out something sad, we want to step in and comfort them. We don't want to let them try to work something through," she says.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a local child psychiatrist and author, says parents should maximize "floor time" without sounding or looking too authoritarian.

He recommends parents join their children as fellow playmates, but at the same time look for ways to stimulate their children's analytical thinking or problem-solving.

One suggestion he makes is that while parents and children play with a train set, parents ask their children who is hiding behind the blocks or what the weather looks like to stir the child's creative energies while they play.

"There's only one inviolate floor-time rule that you must step in and enforce if necessary," Dr. Greenspan writes in "Building Healthy Minds." "No hurting people, and no breaking toys. Remember, your job is to let your child set the emotional tone of your play and then to follow his lead."

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