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Strengthening your relationship through play

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Strengthening your relationship through play

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Play helps the child blend the known and the new, stretch the real into the possible, and work through the emotions of both

Sybil M Berkey from Teaching the Moving Child

We know children need to play and do so for many reasons. When they are babies and into toddlerhood it usually feels more natural to engage in play with them. It is a recognized need at that age – they are working on developing and practicing new skills.

Sometime during later toddlerhood, or early childhood, parents may find that the dynamic of play with their child changes, as the child’s world expands.   This is natural, as the child’s world become more physically accessible and there are a multitude of ways for them to work on new skills, they also have more developed inner resources. They head off to school and suddenly seem more grown up, and seemingly require less from us from a play standpoint. 

Of course, we still play with our children, but it develops into something different as their needs change. This may look like more board games, or ball throwing games outside.  However, from toddlerhood through lower primary school, play still presents parents or other adults in a child’s life, with a wonderful opportunity. The value of imaginary play can extend through age 12 or beyond depending on a child’s developmental levels.

What’s filial play therapy?

Play is an essential form of communication and healing for children, providing a medium through which the child can express difficult feelings and work through challenging experiences in the presence of a trusted adult.

Geraldine Thomas

Filial play therapy involves training parents in play therapy techniques. This helps them to create a structured environment in which to observe play, and helps them to identify Parents can use filial play therapy to complement family therapy. Parents can apply some of these principles to enhance the parent-child relationship. It provides a wonderful medium to troubleshoot areas that are a sticking point for your child. It has a different role than the impromptu, joyful play of children. It’s not a replacement for this play.

I have used filial play therapy techniques with my own children to work through issues or prepare them for upcoming events. Here, I want to offer you the benefit of my filial play therapy, to strengthen your relationship with your child.

I highlight some of the principles and techniques here. You can use many of these to strengthen your relationship with your child through play.

For more formal support I would advise seeking one to one support from a filial play therapy trained therapist.

Using filial play techniques

How play techniques can strengthen the parent child relationship

  • Creates a safe atmosphere
  • Can help you attune with your child
  • Gives children a way to express themselves
  • Can help troubleshoot parent-child relationship issues through play
  • Offers a medium for problem-solving
  • Can give you an idea of what concepts children are working on
  • Helps you to recognise something they are struggling with, or with which they’re struggling to come to terms
  • Demonstrates that a parent has their child in mind and shows active interest
  • You can use it to prepare your child for potentially stressful upcoming situations, for example, a hospital visit
  • Can be useful if your child is struggling with regulation and behaviour issues; anxiety, loss, trauma, depression, aggression, attachment issues, attention and hyperactivity

The 4 basic techniques:

Structuring play

Set the scene; identify a specific play area.

Choose a few toys, but not too many.

Choose toys that appeal to your child.

If you know there are certain relationship issues or trigger points then choose toys that give your child the opportunity to work through this in play. For example, if a child has experienced an upsetting illness or hospital visit, perhaps have some toys available which reflect this; an ambulance, a toy medical kit, etc.

Small world figures, animals, or cars; anything which can be used to reflect people and relationships in play are helpful to include. They don’t have to be human shaped to work.

Explain to your child about this special play time. Choose a name to give it. Explain to your child that they can play with the toys in however they want. 

Setting a timer can be helpful, so that it is the timer ending the time rather than you.

Empathic listening

Provide a reflective narrative regarding the child’s emotions and behaviours. This may involve a bit of guessing. Your child will usually correct you if you don’t quite get it right. ‘I can see that boy is frustrated when the mummy told him to go to bed.’ You may notice that in their play they visit areas of life where your relationship becomes strained.

parent child play strengthens relationships as Dad plays small world play with his child

Child-centered imaginary play

Observe your child and follow their lead. This can feel a bit challenging as a parent. You may feel that you are turning your control over to the child. You are. In this protected space, this is a valuable approach to use. It offers your child a greater sense of control. This form of play may help to diffuse power struggles which may normally occur in the relationship.

Limit setting

It is helpful if you explain the limits of the play ahead of time. You may need to remind your child during play, especially if you have concerns about safety. Let them know that play cannot continue if anyone gets hurt, as this is a safe space.

The practicalities


  • Let the child take the lead: this play can reverse the usual dynamics of your relationship
  • Allow them to tell you what to do
  • Set limits  – time, place, safety


  • Avoid asking questions – this disrupts the flow of play: instead make observational statements, ‘I can see there is a mummy, a daddy, a brother and sister in this family’, or ‘That baby seems like it doesn’t want to use the toilet.’ ‘I wonder if that girl is angry with her mummy about something.’
  • Don’t use it as a teaching opportunity. That’s is not the purpose of this type of play. For example, don’t ask your child to identify how many or what colour an object is.
  • Avoid other distractions, such as screens or other siblings. It is important for you to be able to focus on your child, and for your child to be able to focus on their play.

Joining in

You can sit back at first and wait to be invited into the play. Take advantage of being able to observe. If your child seems unsure about how to bring you into the play you could pick up a toy or character and ask, ‘Shall I be this one?’

Your role

Attend to what the child is saying and doing. Be present in the moment.

Make observations. Notice what the child is doing out loud. Notice and make comments about emotions, about what they are playing with, or what they are struggling with. This does not need to be constant or intrusive.

Model an idea for dealing with something. Play it out with the child. ‘I noticed this little boy is scared of the potty. Maybe he can ask someone for help or practice flushing it before using it.’

Supporting solutions

Notice if the child plays something repetitively. Reflect if there is something they need an explanation for to further their understanding. You can offer this through play, or as a separate chat after the play. For example, where parents have separated, and the child brings this up in play. This may be a sign the child needs a child-friendly explanation about the separation. The most helpful information will be around areas that directly affect the child. This could include what will be different in their lives, and what will stay the same.

Keep boundaries and safety in mind. If your child becomes disregulated, overwhelmed, or aggressive, then stay with them. However, perhaps offer to stop play time and focus on relationship connection and calming.

Example: a structured play scenario. Preparing for a stressful event

When my daughter was 2 she was scheduled for a surgery on her eyelid.  This was not a shock because we had known from a very young age that she required surgery. Her condition, called Ptosis, meant that her eyelid could not open more than 4 mm. We started speaking to her about going into hospital so that her eye could become more open. 

The play scenario

I thought that some of the filial play therapy techniques could really help to prepare her for what could be a stressful event. We created a little doctor’s office and a toy hospital. There were teddies, a magic wand, and a toy medical kit.  I offered her the opportunity to play about the hospital visit and surgery.

We would make a game of her lying still and having an oxygen mask over her face, and pretending to fall asleep. (We had one on hand from a visit from paramedics earlier that month, but that is another story!) I offered her this opportunity a couple of times a week with the lead up time of 3 weeks before the surgery.

The impact

It appeared to mentally and emotionally prepare her for the hospital visit, and also provided a sense of what parts she could control going into the surgery. Even now many years later, she recalls parts of the experience with no distress. She only mentions about her confusion about the IV tube being left in her hand for a few hours.

Other times we have found it useful to apply in our parent-child relationship have been at times of separation, such as going off to primary school. Or when we had a period of time when my daughter’s sleep was so dysregulated. We were experiencing daily meltdowns and what felt like power struggles. It was exhausting for all of us. It felt like another approach was needed. She was about 6 by this time. Entering her world through play helped to tease out some of the build up in tension which had started to occur in our relationship.

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.


Finding out more

There are so many uses and benefits to setting up an opportunity for protected time and space for child-led play.  As mentioned, you can seek out more formal training through a filial play therapist. However, the principles are easy to apply and offer a helpful way to help your child and build up your relationship with your child.

Filial Therapy was developed by Bernard and Louise Guerney in the 1960s. A Parent’s Guide to Filial Play Therapy by Rise van Fleet is a useful resource.

A similar therapy model that uses some of these techniques is the Child Parent Relationship Therapy (CPRT). This teaches parents specific skills to strengthen the quality of their parent-child relationship and improve their child’s well-being.

Disclaimer – this article is a highlight of the principles of Filial Therapy and the techniques within which parents may find useful to use with their children. It is important to understand that this is a collaboration between parent and child, as opposed to locating family problems with a child. It is about the relationship between parent and child. Finding a trained therapist who uses these techniques is another option for parents who would like support using this technique.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Calmer relationships, Child relationships, Childhood play & learning, Family activities, Toddler play
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