The primary language for children is play; so in order to connect with them, we must speak their language. When we enter into a conversation with them, we can make the decision to understand their world first, not to mold them into first understanding our world. Just as we might track a conversation with a friend, following along, making statements and asking questions, we build rapport with a child by tracking their play, behaviors, and feelings. This means stating back to them what you see them doing, noticing details of their play, and asking questions about the stories they are creating through play. As they engage in play and we join with them, making comments on their feelings and actions will also communicate to the child that you understand his/her internal world. The happiest children and the best behaved children are the ones who feel understood, loved and safe. This involves adults commenting on a child’s behavior and responding in a nurturing, predictable manner. The key is to follow the child’s lead, not the other way around. By engaging children in this way, adults can offer children the the gift of being heard, seen and understood.
Here are some specific examples of how you might engage a child through their language.
- Describe what you see the child doing: “I see you’re pretending to be a monster.” “I see you doing summersaults; that looks like fun.” “I see you’ve set up your room like a classroom.” “I see you are drawing a picture of a rainbow.” “I see you’ve set the table for dinner.”
By acknowledging to a child what you notice about her play or behavior, you send the message that you are available to the child and speak her language.
- Acknowledge a child’s feelings and desires: “I know you are upset because you wanted to play longer.” “You’re excited about camp today.” “Are you worried about what I will say?” “I know you don’t want to go to time out.” Providing a child feedback on his feelings allows him to be seen, promote emotional intelligence, and help him regulate emotions.
- Invite the child to focus on a structured activity. You might ask her to draw a picture of her family, classroom or friends. While engaging in an activity, children (as well as adults) find it easier to share about themselves. You can also ask questions about her drawing to better understand her world.