Home » Library » Parenting » Understanding Your Child by Observing Their Play, Part 2: Mastering Life
The Benefits of Play

Understanding Your Child by Observing Their Play, Part 2: Mastering Life

This is Part 2 in a 2-part series. Read Understanding Your Child by Observing Their Play, Part 1: Wishes and Desires.

Children can be understood by observing their play. All of their unconscious wishes and desires are cast into a train set, playground or sandbox for their parent to observe and take notice. As noted in my previous article entitled Understanding Your Child by Observing Their Play, Part 1: Wishes and Desires, children play to express both pleasurable and “forbidden” wishes.

Children also attempt to master life. They must master the world around them, their bodies and their conflicting internal experience. Forbidden wishes are examples of conflicting internal wishes. Children may wish to hurt/destroy/kill, but they also don’t wish to hurt/disappoint/destroy the person that cares for them and that they care about. They also know that it’s against the law or against their parent’s wishes to act on such things.

The work of a play therapist or parent is to help a child become more at ease with their forbidden wishes, verbalize them, and to learn that a wish is very different than an action.  

When you can identify and express a forbidden wish verbally, you are less likely to act on it inappropriately. It is the healthy person that can say, “I am so envious of your new toy/car/marriage. I wish I had that, but I wouldn’t want to take those things from you!” This is hard for many adults to say or acknowledge and it is a long term goal for a child to develop such emotional strength.

What else are children trying to master when they play? At an early age, toddlers play by grabbing, moving, crawling and walking. They are trying to master the function of their bodies. As a child ages, they continue to master their bodies (“How fast can I run? How far can I throw? How creative of a story can I write? I can cook like daddy too!”).  

They are also copying what grown ups and kids do around them in an attempt to process and master how things work. “My dad puts the pot on the stove. I will put a pot on my toy stove. I will stir things just like daddy.” They may not know why or exactly what they are doing, but they will copy those around them. Why? So they can figure out what’s happening.

Through this repetitive play, they will master understanding of the world and how it works. Eventually, little by little their brains will figure out, “Oh! My daddy is making my yummy oatmeal!” Then later, “Oh, my yummy oatmeal is warm because he turns on that strange fire and I think that fire makes it hot because daddy keeps saying ‘Hot! Hot!'” And even later, the child is thinking, “He stirs the oatmeal so it won’t burn like that time daddy forgot to stir and there was a yucky smell!”

Article continues below...
Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

As the child ages, they might master the steps to making oatmeal and play them out on their play stove. “First I turn the stove on, then I pour the oatmeal in. Then I add the water. Then I stir. Then it’s ready. Then I blow on it and then I eat it!” It takes a great deal of observation and study to understand how the world works.

Children are essentially tiny scientists and the world is their lab.  

They will repeat and repeat tasks in play to understand them just like a scientist will retest something until they have reliable results. The play is repetitive and, to adults, sometimes boring because you’ve already mastered making oatmeal! But to a child, it is mind boggling and very perplexing.

Mastering how things work in the world around them is one thing, but mastering how rules work is another more complicated matter. Rules change, there’s exceptions based on situation, time, age and more. Children are thrown into a very complicated world. For example, sometimes a parent lets a child throw things and sometimes they don’t. Imagine a child thinking, “Why is my mommy so happy when I throw a ball, but she yelled when I threw sand? Why can’t I throw sand? It feels good and I like it! That kid nearby just made a silly face when I did that. How funny! Why did my mommy say ‘Sand in boy’s eyes?’ when I threw sand up (except they didn’t, but they don’t have the memory, fine motor skills, awareness of things around them to know otherwise because of their age)?”

Children are trying to master the social and behavioral expectations around them as noted above, but they are also trying to master scary things. Are toy cars and dolls yelling at each other in your child’s play just like their mommies yelled at each other the night before? Are toys having a hard time sharing just like the child is having a hard time sharing with their sibling or in preschool? Are their toys suddenly going bonkers and knocking all the other toys over just like the child becomes overtired and gets “wild and reckless” instead of sleepy? Are the toys disappearing just like mommy disappeared and didn’t come home again? A child’s play is a representation of how they experience the world and make sense of the world. The more traumatic and scary their actual world is the more traumatic and scary their play will often be.    

Child’s play can often be confusing and puzzling because they are not just working on one thing at a time. They are working on and thinking about multiple things. Psychoanalysts refer to this as multiple determination. If you observe the themes in your child’s play and find it confounding, know that your child is likely feeling the same way! There is so much for them to understand about themselves and the world. Your job is to play along with them and let them take the lead! Ask them questions, be curious and be their lab assistant. Help them carry out their experiments in their play and, when you’re able, give a voice to your observations to help them understand what they are struggling with.  

A final note — A child that has a relatively calm and structured life, will still have much to work through and master. A child with trauma and a lot of family stress will have much more to understand and process. But the amazing thing is that children are wired to play and work through these things. Even if your family has a history or trauma, abuse or significant stressors, kids can process them and work through them with a trusted adult.

In her book, Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed stated that her mother dying made her a better person. Hard times can be like that for people. If you are worried or feel guilty about your hard times and how they have affect your child, I get it. But you should know that it is the repair work and the efforts you make to get help, talk about it with your children and help them understand and give voice to what happened that will ultimately build a more resilient and emotionally intelligent child. Your child will be able to say, “I know hard times, but I am stronger for it and I know I can deal if something else hard comes my way. I also know that I can trust that adults will help me.”

Understanding Your Child by Observing Their Play, Part 2: Mastering Life

Stacie Degeneffe, LCSW

Stacie Degeneffe LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Emeryville, California. Drawing on her training in adult psychoanalysis, play therapy and strength-based parent/child interaction therapy, she strives to help others gain greater self understanding and have more fulfilling relationships.

APA Reference
Degeneffe, S. (2018). Understanding Your Child by Observing Their Play, Part 2: Mastering Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Nov 2018 (Originally: 20 Nov 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Nov 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.