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Using Play to Teach Self-Regulation Skills

One of the ways we can help our children flourish is to help them develop self-regulation skills. Self-regulation is a complex process in which people integrate sensory input, hold in their awareness internal processes like emotions and thoughts to maintain an appropriate level of arousal for the situation, and respond in ways that are intentional and meditated. Healthy self-regulation skills help to maintain attention, guide social interactions, and direct behaviors that are more consistent with personal values and long-term goals. If that sounds intimidating, take a deep breath, we can help our children develop these important skills in lots of ways, some as simple as playing.

Self-regulation is definitely a skill set to be developed. Newborns are incapable of self-regulation hence the dependence on parents and caregivers for co-regulation. The adults in newborns' lives lead co-regulation by either filtering stimuli or providing stimuli for arousal; like dimming the lights or quieting a room or the opposite by physical touch, talking, singing, and playing co-regulating games like peek-a-boo. When infants are over-aroused caregivers are the one to make the effort to soothe and calm. Parents and caregivers also teach these skills through modeling their own use of self-regulation.

As children are developmentally ready to move from co-regulation to self-regulation, parents and caregivers can use these playful activities to help foster this skill set. The following list are some of my favorite activities since they don't require many materials, and they feel so natural, fun, and engaging. So play on! (As if you needed another reason to play.)

Hide and Seek - This game can be super exciting and your younger kids will let you know it through their squeals and wiggles informing the seekers where their hiding place is, and their mad dash to find the hiders. Help your child self-regulate by counting slowly in rhythm with you when seeking, and using walking feet to find their friends. When hiding you can help your child self-regulate using the same methods you would to co-regulate a baby; holding them with firm pressure (think swaddling) shushing (when appropriate), and helping them notice what they feel inside and what is happening around them. If you think your child is not aroused enough for the situation you can always add to the excitement by making comments in anticipation of being found and surprising hiders with a friendly, "Boo!".

Command and Respond Games - This is how I categorize games such as Red Light Green Light, Simon Says, and Mother May I. All three of these games require a leader that provides commands. It's up to the rest of the players to filter incoming directions and only act on the ones that fall in line with the rules of that specific game, thus flexing children's self-regulating muscles.

Interactive Music Selections - Jim Gill is kind of a superstar in the world of preschool and libraries due to his thoughtful work engaging family in play through song. Similar to the command and respond games, Jim Gill's lyrics direct playful interaction on cue. Families follow along with moments of silly, big movements and quiet down to the point of freezing in other moments. With practice and modeling from adults, children are able to widen their window of tolerance for arousal while still being able to self-regulate back to a balanced state. Jim Gill's music CD's and digital downloads can be purchased from his website You may be able to borrow these materials from your local library as well. If you ever have the chance, I recommend attending one of Jim Gill's concerts - everybody participates in the song and dance, and it is so much fun!

Intentional Dramatic Play - Any kind of play that requires the children to plan and sequence helps to develop self-regulation. Intentional dramatic play is basically using what is on hand to play out an assigned role, like pretending to be a father, teacher, firefighter, or a made up character. Dramatic play helps to develop skills of self-regulation since the children play together within the parameters of their chosen roles. It uses self-regulation skills since they are taking in information from their peers and surroundings and being intentional about their responses, and even more so when they plan ahead of time what they will be playing and how might the story play out. Who knew dramatic play could be so sophisticated?

So next time you're playing with your child, take heart, you are teaching and helping your child to learn and grow in a myriad of ways, especially in developing skills for self-regulation. You rock! Enjoy!

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