5 Ways to Use Play as a Behavior Management Strategy

Updated: May 1, 2018

In addition to being a photographer and a mother, I'm also a child therapist. Part of my job is to teach parents effective strategies for managing their children's behavior. I teach them how to use rewards and praise. I teach them about limit setting and logical consequences. I teach them about "when...then" statements and appropriate choices. But there is one strategy that often gets left out of the literature and parenting curriculums, and it is by far the most fun. Play!

1. Have a race!

I haven't kept track, but it is entirely possible that my daughter and I have competed in over 1,000 "races" to put our pajamas on over the years. It is amazing how a child who is protesting putting their shoes on one minute, will happily race you to see if they can put their shoes on faster than you the next minute. Sometimes I have my child "race" against the clock by seeing if she can finish her bath before the timer beeps.

2. Use puppets.

I don't know about you, but there was a time when I struggled to get my toddler to be willing to let me brush her teeth. I finally figured out that, while there were some things she wouldn't do for me, there was almost nothing she wouldn't do for her sock puppet. So, the puppet started coming out to tell her it was time to brush teeth. It worked like magic. After a while, I found a shortcut. I started pretending her toothbrush could talk. Miss toothbrush would go on and on about how she looked forward all day to teeth brushing time. One evening, I noticed my daughter carefully turning our toothbrushes toward the window. When I asked, she explained that she was turning them so they could watch the sunset together.

3. Play with your food.

It can be stressful when your kid refuses to eat, but it's not the sort of thing you want to get in a power struggle over. See if you can find a way to make mealtimes fun! Get creative about how you display the food. Kids who are totally opposed to eating broccoli can sometimes be persuaded to eat a tiny forest of trees. You can also play games at meal times. Take turns closing your eyes, feeding one anther a bite, and guessing what it was. Another idea is to see if you and your child can crunch down on a bite at the exact same moment.

4. Float like a cloud.

I was so impressed when I was observing my daughter's kindergarten class, and the teacher asked the children to rotate to the next learning station in the room. She told them to "float like a cloud" to the next station. The kids slowly and softly walked over and gracefully sat where they were supposed to be. I guarantee you that if she had just told them to walk slowly, a few of them wouldn't have listened. Children have amazing imaginations, and sometimes it is easier (and more fun) for them to pretend than to behave. A child who refuses to walk to the car when it's time to leave the park might be perfectly happy to hop like a frog to the car. A child who stomps loudly down the hall might be able to soften his step if he's asked to pretend the hallway floor is made of hot lava with a delicate layer of rock covering it that must not be broken.

5. Play to practice expected behavior.

When my daughter started preschool, she was a little angel all day in class. But by the time I picked her up, she was exhausted and grumpy. The transition from school to home was anything but smooth at first. It kind of broke my heart, because I was already feeling bad about being away from her while I was at work. So, we worked on it by playing. We picked a time when she wasn't tired or hungry. We set up her stuffed animals and pretended they were her teachers and classmates. We set up a chair and pretended it was our car. We acted out the transition and practiced expected behavior (cooperating, getting into her carseat without protesting...). She loved playing it out, and she wanted to do it over and over. After that, things went much smoother at the end of the school day.

The next time you find yourself struggling with your child's behavior, try to think of a way to use play or a game to change the dynamic. If you have play strategies that have worked with your child, leave a comment! I'd love to hear your ideas!