Introduction: Play and CPP

In the picture shown at the top of this page, a mama lion has joined with uncle and grandma tiger to protect the cubs from the fierce dragon. Early in treatment, the child used these figures to show scenes where despite their best efforts the lion and tigers were not able to protect the baby cubs. The dragon was too strong and powerful and would sometimes carry the cubs away while the lion ran after the dragon but could not catch up. Other times the cubs would fight the dragon by themselves, showing how strong and powerful they were. The mama lion tried to help, but she was told she could not do anything.

Within this particular family, the child was telling a story that both mother and therapist recognized and had talked about together during their meetings alone as part of the foundational phase of treatment. This child had seen violence within the family and, at that time, the mother sadly said she had not been able to keep herself or the child safe. The therapists understood this and also knew from their discussions that mom herself had been through so much as a child and was striving to break a cycle that had begun many generations ago. 

The more the child played, the more the mother recognized how much her child had been affected by what had happened. She also saw spoke with the therapist about how much she had been affected. At first the play was confusing. It was chaotic as the dragon destroyed the house and threw the other animals out. Mom worried about the child's "aggression" but was able to think with the therapist about how perhaps rather than being aggressive, in "play" the child was painting a picture of what the family had been through. This story was inside the child and while it was a hard story to watch, the mother found hope in seeing it come out because she knew the pain of holding a story like this inside herself without help. She wanted to do something different for her child.

The child's play was not an exact telling of what the family had experienced. There were many aspects of the play that were confusing. For example, this child did not have siblings, and there were always multiple baby animals who were in danger. Sometimes the baby got injured and an ambulance came to take the baby to the hospital. This child had never been injured during a fight, so this was hard to understand. Mother and therapist talked about how when the child was a baby, the child had been taken to the hospital after a severe asthma attack. For grown-ups we often view events as separate. In the language of play, the child was blending events, sharing symbolically all the different times the little cub was scared.

The therapist and mom were able to think together and about the possible meanings of play. Mom saw her role as bearing witness to what her child was showing her, acknowledging how this was symbolically connected to what they had been through. She expressed how sad she was that the babies were in danger, and her child heard her. Over the course of treatment, she gave voice to fear and sadness, and she showed her child that mama lion was trying to do things differently. She was trying to keep her babies safe. As mom made changes in her life together with grandma and uncle, the child became more accepting of the mama lion's ability to keep the babies safe in play. The mama lion together with the tigers could now fight off the dragon.

In this particular family, they saw the dragon as another family member, someone who very much loved the child and who was struggling with substances, depression and their own history of childhood trauma. In play towards the end of treatment, the dragon was sometimes kind and loving and other times scary. Through play mom and child were able to share how confusing it was to both love and be scared by the dragon. They were able to give voice to the turbulence that they carried inside them in holding this reality. Mom saw her role as keeping the child safe and helping the child to make meaning of this complex and confusing family story.

We share this story to illustrate that this is one of the many ways that children use play. In play children often show us a blend of real experiences mixed with fantasy and symbolism. They use toys to show us scenes that depict challenging realities and feelings  that would be difficult for a grown-up, let alone a child under the age of 6 to say with words. 

As CPP therapists, when we work with toddlers and preschoolers, we learn to "speak" the special language of play. We think with parents about the potential meanings of the scenes children create, and we think about what we can do as adults. We try first to show children that we are trying to understand their experience and then, as understanding sets in, we share that we "get it," that they are not alone with either the emotional or actual reality of their experience. And then, if things are different, we can enter into the magical language of play to jointly show that the adults are partnering to do things differently. 

This is one of the many paths that play can lead to. Within CPP, we also use play to connect and to learn about feelings and what to do with them appreciating our diverse family and cultural backgrounds and beliefs. As we play out challenging stories,  the children have taught us that they are wise. They know that our bodies need breaks from these realities that we need to breathe and reconnect, and that the true goal of therapy is to support connection and development. So within sessions, we often see play focused on simply having fun, on showing how much love and joy there is, and on doing something that helps them to feel differently in their body. This way, children learn that it is ok to talk and play about difficult experiences so we feel less stranded and alone with our experience, and we do not have to get stuck in remembering or in having difficult feelings. We can play.

The list below is meant as a guide for toys that can be helpful when practicing CPP. Each toy on this list is linked to a suggested place for purchasing. Please note that the CPP Dissemination and Implementation Team does not promote any particular vendor for purchasing toys and encourages you to find the toys that suit you and your family's needs!

​Please click on the Pinterest link below for more ideas on toys useful in CPP play rooms and home visiting.