- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Diana England's house in Bethesda hosts more parties these days than the fraternity in "Animal House."
Justine, Mrs. England's 3-year-old daughter, loves birthday parties. Almost every day, there's another birthday for another doll, another excuse to roll out the cake and candles and invitations.
"She puts a lot into her birthday parties," Mrs. England says. "It is interesting watching her. She ab-solutely loves dolls and birthday parties, and she arranges different events for them."
When it's party time, Mrs. England tends to do what many parents do she sits back and watches and shakes her head with a proud smile at the elaborate details Justine tends to as a hostess.
Many experts in child psychology and play therapy, however, say parents can do a lot more to enhance their children's playtime by jumping into their games and fantasies and being an active participant instead of just a smiling observer.

Floor time

Dr. Stanley Greenspan calls it "floor time." In more than 20 books on child development and in his child psychiatry practice, Dr. Greenspan has popularized the concept of children spending quality time on the floor playing, and parents playing alongside them.
"Some parents do [floor time], but many don't have the time or inclination," he says. "I want to help parents be aware how important this is to a child's development. Parents who don't have the time are often spending that time doing other things with kids in a more informal kind of interaction, but this is where it's at a lot of times.
"Parents think of playtime as fun and having a great time and kind of 'dessert' for their kids," he says. "My point is that this is really the meat and potatoes. This comes first and some of the other stuff might be dessert."
In his most recent book, "Building Healthy Minds," which came out last year, Dr. Greenspan advocates parents getting down to their children's level, physically and intellectually, and joining them in their world.
"You'll be encouraging him to be the boss of all the drama that unfolds, and will follow his lead as an ever-willing sidekick Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote," he writes.
Cathryn Herrfurth, a Laurel stay-at-home mom and president of the Laurel Moms Club, says she likes to get down on the floor and play with her three children, Mattias, 7, Olivia, 5, and Andrew, 3.
"I'm more hands-on," she says. "I'll let them direct me. One of the most important things you can do for your kids, I think, is make them self-sufficient, so that's one thing I've focused on with them. They all have their own places for their shoes, clothes, toys and other things. And letting them take the lead when we play has been a big part of that, I think."
Child development experts say parents can learn plenty about their children from "floor time" and even just by observing them.
"Basically, a child's work is play," says Debby Casolari, a play therapist and director of Child Life Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda.
"How they express themselves, see and cope with life, interact with life, all of those things come out through the way they play," she says. "There are a lot of things we can learn from that."

Different styles

So what can parents learn from their children by watching them play? One thing parents can watch for is the style their children adopt when they play, not necessarily which toys they choose.
"The outgoing child takes a real leadership role, like, 'You be the mommy, I'll be the daddy,' " Miss Casolari says.
"A quieter child might pick a quieter activity, like sitting with crayons or easels. They might be the ones that need help from Mommy or a day-care provider who might say, 'Why don't we play with Joey?' They might be the ones who will need a suggestion to get going as to what activity they might be playing," she says. "The really shy kids have a hard time picking an activity. They'll be out on the playground waiting for direction."
Mrs. Herrfurth says she has learned a lot about her children and their personalities from participating in play groups the past five years.
"Watching the kids interact gives you a different perspective on the personality types: assertive or shy, caring or indifferent, aggressive or fearful," she says. "It also gives you the opportunity to model the expected behavior and shape the personality."
One playtime tip Miss Casolari has seen work in quieter children who are more shy is to put them in groups where they tend to be the older child.
"Shy children tend to be leaders more in groups where they're the older child," she says. "That's one reason a lot of parents want to leave their shy children back a year. But sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes, children just like being an observer in group settings."
In formal play therapy, child psychiatrists help abused and traumatized children work through their emotions through play, realizing that children will communicate deep emotional issues through play that they cannot articulate verbally. Miss Casolari has used play therapy to help children face upcoming surgery or other traumatic events, and parents can do similar things in everyday play, she says.
"Kids are instinctively finding ways to play," Miss Casolari says. "Even in war-torn countries like Kosovo or Bosnia, kids are still playing in the fields with scrap metal. They'll always find things like that. Parents have lots of opportunities to help their children develop socially and psychologically by playing with them and helping them move on to the next level."

Time to be a child

The biggest mistake parents make when they play with their children, experts say, is trying to be a parent instead of a playmate. It's a natural instinct, particularly in today's culture, where many parents work long hours and honestly want to be good parents in the limited time they have with their children.
But "floor time" is a time for fun and letting the child take charge, they say.
"The key is for parents not to feel they have to be in the same parental role when they're playing with their children," says William Nordling, a child psychologist with the Bethesda-based National Institute for Relationship Enhancement. "They don't have to use those sessions for teaching. They have lots of other times for teaching. This is a time of development of children's expression."
Louise Guerney, a pioneer in the field of filial therapy (parents playing with children), says parents should go so far as to bite their tongue even when their children don't seem to be "playing fair."
"My best advice is to give children the chance to make the decision about what will happen," she says. "This is a time when they should be allowed to play most any way they like. There have to be limits you can't have them pitching things around the room but parents typically want to teach all sorts of things about playing honestly and how to be a fair player.
"But if you are going to really give a child a chance for himself, this isn't the time for teaching the rules of life. If a child wants to say, 'I get three turns and you get two,' a parent needs to deal with that. The main thing for parents at this stage is to set up for the child to take the lead and to know the parent won't be doing a lot of correcting and teaching."
Mrs. Guerney says this philosophy isn't bad for children in the long run because they quickly learn the difference between "play rules" and "real rules."
"That applies to very young children," she says. "A 2-year-old will look at you like, 'What time is this? Is this our play time, our special time?' Then they go back to the rules of life."

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