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  • Writer's pictureDr Chris Moore

The P in PACE: Playfulness

On my journey to become an Educational Psychologist, I had the privilege of meeting Dan Hughes when under-going training on Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. This is a therapeutic approach for children who have experienced trauma – a dialogue with the child and their caregivers which helps them to communicate and relate in more positive and healthy ways.

Ever since this training, I’ve been fascinated with Dan’s formula of PACE – the four characteristics of Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy which underpin reciprocal relationships. In this post, I’m going to focus on the first part of the acronym and consider how we can be more playful in our interactions with children in the school environment.

What is Playfulness?

Playfulness is all about the positive spectrum of emotions. It is used to elicit moments of shared joy and delight. It can be easy to forget playfulness when we are helping children to tolerate and regulate more difficult emotions, such as anger, terror and envy. But if we teach children how to cope with and seek out positive emotions, we are strengthening their ability to regulate all kinds of feelings.

It should be noted that a playful approach is likely to be the last part of the PACE acronym that we apply when we are first building a relationship with the child who has experienced trauma. They are going to need our Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy far more in the early days and these will be covered in subsequent blogs. But Playfulness is crucial for showing how we can be light-hearted and spontaneous – that there is still plenty of room for fun and relaxing interactions despite the difficult moments.

Why is Playfulness important?

For a child with a background of neglect, abuse or loss, it may be difficult for them to realise that adults in school are safe, friendly and caring towards them. Playfulness is a great way of showing that you truly like the child and it reduces the authority of your role. We need to continue having playful conversations and interactions after a time in which we needed to impose limits or help them to regulate difficult emotions. This can be hard if the child’s words or actions have stirred up powerful emotions in the adults who support them – but finding time for playful moments is essential in maintaining an open and engaged relationship.

There are physiological benefits from this approach. Playful interactions can put a muzzle on the lower areas of the brain which govern our defensive responses, making us more open and willing to engage and seek closeness with another person. Hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine, freed from the dampening effect of cortisol (the stress hormone), allow us to experience a connection with another person as enjoyable and rewarding.

The higher areas of the brain work more effectively, enabling us to construct more positive meaning from our experiences and apply important executive functioning skills (e.g. controlling impulses, flexible thinking, problem-solving, etc). Therefore, playful interactions have enormous benefits – not just for a child whose brain has developed in the context of trauma, but for the adults caring for and supporting this child.

Ideas for developing a Playful Approach

Warm and Personalised Greetings.

How we start the day with a child who has experienced trauma is so important. We need to emphasise that they are welcome and that we are pleased to see them. This can be achieved by establishing a fun and consistent greeting. It’s important that this is agreed with the child so that it is a comfortable experience. Some children may enjoy a high five or fist bump routine. Others who are more sensitive to touch may prefer a reciprocal wave or thumbs up. Using lines from their favourite TV show or film can also be a means of saying hello in a way that is specific to that child’s personal interests.

Show that you are interested in and delighted by what the child is doing

Research has demonstrated how responsive toddlers are to the facial expressions conveyed by their caregivers. The famous “Still Face Experiment” is a great example of what happens when we are not animated and expressive with our faces – the child tries everything to reconnect with the inactive adult and then becomes very distressed. The lack of responsiveness from the adult has activated the child’s stress-response and defensive systems. You can see a demonstration of this experiment on YouTube at this link: There is also a video of this experiment focusing on fathers:

When we are attempting to foster relationships with children who have experienced relational trauma, our faces become a key ingredient in establishing attuned interactions; attunement is the sharing of emotional experiences. Rather than adopting a neutral expression, we need to go the extra mile of being truly animated. Smile more! Open your mouth and raise your eyebrows when giving praise and feedback. Vary the tone and pace of your speech and match the child’s excitement and pride when they talk about their accomplishments or interests. Use brief but regular eye contact to show that you’re really listening to what they’re saying.

Find moments for silliness

Being silly is disarming for a child whose amygdala is doing its job a little too well. Reducing the authority of the adult’s role can help the child to feel safe and secure. When discussing difficult situations or feelings, talk as if you’re a storyteller from a TV show – emphasise key words, change your tone of voice throughout and create dramatic pauses as if the story is unfolding in front of both of you. Incorporate slapstick during teaching – this can be as simple as a funny voice, a silly hat or speaking to a puppet. We can also show that we are fallible by making mistakes and being forgetful – when we find the humour in these moments, we are modelling how the child can handle similar situations.

Play games which build to an exciting finish

We need to be mindful that the child’s developmental age may be lower than their chronological age. The use of games such as peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek can teach fundamental concepts of permanency and constancy. They can also help the child to tolerate a brief period of not knowing what will happen in a situation or a loss of direct contact with an adult.

Ready-Steady-Go games using bubbles or wind-up cars can develop the ability to focus through consistent anticipation of an action. Activities with an inevitable conclusion – the popping up of a toy pirate from a barrel, items springing from buckaroo, the fall of Jenga pieces or dominoes – can also be fun and most importantly predictable games.

Incorporate rhythmic actions into teaching

Tasks which incorporate movement can be very soothing and free up the higher levels of the brain for learning. We can think of ways to add rhythm across the curriculum. The child and his/her peers could poke a balloon or toss a beanbag across the room to take turns in a discussion. They could learn key words or count items by clapping, tapping or jumping. We can also use Simons Says, Traffic Light Statues and Musical Chairs as a means of helping the child to take part in a consistent manner.

Defuse stressful demands

While we should avoid the use of sarcasm and advanced metaphor, humour can be a great way of diverting from conflict and reducing demands. We can gently exaggerate about what might happen if a rule isn’t followed, joke about our perceptions and wonder aloud about how the child would prefer a situation to turn out. For the child who struggles to get ready on time or organise themselves for the next activity, make a game out of it and set realistic expectations which can easily earn them lots of positive attention.

If we know that a particular social situation is difficult for the child, try role-playing lots of possibilities – from the funny to the bizarre. Some children who have experienced trauma can struggle to cope with sensory overload generated by changes in activity or noisier/busier transitions during the day. Giving them a special job or responsibility to carry out at these times can help to insulate them from these demands, by adding more structure and predictability to the transition.

Key References and Recommended Reading

· Hughes, D.A. & Baylin, J. (2012). Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

· Golding, K.S. & Hughes, D.A. (2012). Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

· Bomber, L.M. & Hughes, D.A. (2013). Settling to Learn. Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.

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