Oral Language as Play Therapy for Happy-Successful Children
by Brod Bagert
It was a two week summer visit—my daughter, her husband, and their three children. At one point, after a particularly exasperating interaction with her nine-year-old, she turned to me with a weary smile.
“I spend half my life telling them to put the screens away,” she said. “I don’t want to be the screen-police. I want to help them do well in school. I want to help them deal with small emotional issues before they become big ones. And I want to have some fun with them. I want to play, but when am I going to find enough time for that to happen?”
It’s the mantra of 21st century parenthood. Maybe it’s just a function of the times, or maybe it’s the result of the high expectations we place on ourselves, but either way, it can be very frustrating.
I don’t pretend to have a universal solution to this parental conundrum, but I do have one small suggestion. Based on twenty-five years of working with parents and teachers in virtually all fifty U.S. states and a lifetime as a parent, I can say with confidence that you’re going to love it. It’s an activity that requires some written material, so at the bottom of this page you’ll find a free download of what you’ll need to start today.
I began my adult life as a lawyer and an elected official (Please don’t hate me!). When I ultimately lost an election for higher office, I began to spend more time with my children and eventually began writing poems for them to recite in their elocution programs as school. Back then, most children’s poetry was written in the voice of an adult talking to children, which made it hard for children to recite. The poems I wrote for my children were in their own voices, expressing their real feelings about actual events, each ending with a funny twist. Pretty soon people started asking me to write poems for their children, the whole thing took on a life of its own, and before long I had closed my law office, become a fulltime poet, and begun a poetry-tour that would take me around the world.
Five years into that tour I spoke to a group of parents at a conference in North Carolina. Autographing books after the talk, I turned to the next person in line, a nicely-dressed, middle-aged woman who plopped down six copies of each of my four books for me to autograph.
“I’m a child psychologist,” she laughed. “And these poems are perfect for my patients. We do play therapy,” she explained. “In play therapy, we identify a difficult emotion, give it a name, act it out, laugh at ourselves, and get better. And Brod, every one of these poems are play therapy.”
I was not all that surprised. I’d written those poems for my children in response to specific events in their lives—getting in trouble at home or school, the fine art of manipulating their mom and me, imaginative excuses for being late, hurt feeling with a friend. I understood at some level that laughing about these things was healthy, and it must have done some good. Each of our four children have grown up to be pretty spectacular adults, an outcome in which the playful recitation of poems played a part.
So here’s how you do it. Pick one of the poems in the download that seems appropriate, do an over-the-top dramatic recitation of it for your children, then have them do the same for you and for anyone who you can drag in to listen. Fast, fun, and with the power to stimulate the kind of mutual understanding that leads to authentic conversations and trusting relationships.
Some of you may have gotten snagged on that word “performance,” so let’s take care of that. Dramatic recitation is saying words out loud with expression. How do you put expression in your voice? First what not to do: never-never think about how to make your voice sound. It doesn’t work. Instead, just ask yourself what expression to put on your face and what to do with your body. Your brain will check out your face and body and automatically tell your voice how to sound. So to recite the line, You hurt my feelings—start by making sad eyes, pooch out your bottom lip, droop your shoulders, and say the line. Timing is also important, so make sure that you follow the sequence: face first, then body, and finally words. And you are modeling for your children so remember, OVER THE TOP!
When children master this technique they will have acquired a lot more than recitation skills. Success or failure in life is often a function of how well we communicate our thoughts and feelings to the world around us. And in oral speech that world accepts or rejects us based largely on facial expression and body language.
Lots of people live out their lives oblivious to the non-verbal language that sabotages their every effort. That need not be your children. Recite for and with them, short-funny-emotional poems, using facial expressions and bodily gestures to direct the expression in your voices. It’s fun, it’s healthy, and it will help them acquire a level of oral language skill that will remain with them long after you and I are gone.
Brod Bagert is the award-winning author of 18 books on poetry for children, youth, and adults. His awards include the International Reading Association’s prestigious Young Adults Choices Award, the Association of Educational Publishers Distinguished Achievement Award, the Independent Publisher Gold Book Award and Mom’s Choices Gold Medal. Prior to becoming a poet, Bagert practiced law, served in public office and managed his own practice for twenty-one years before shutting it down and becoming one of America’s few full-time, professional poets. Brod currently lives in New Orleans with Debby, his wife of over 46 years, where they spend quality time with their four children and a growing tribe of grandchildren.
For more information, connect with Bagert on his website, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.
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