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COVID-19: Supporting Children’s Play through Stressful Times

Play has an important role in childhood as it supports early learning. When children experience challenging situations, the source of their stress is often reflected in their play as they try to make sense of their world. When adults support and set the stage for play, children have opportunities to investigate, explore, test, invent and learn within a safe and responsive environment.

Play provides children with an opportunity to:

  • Build relationships and a sense of self in relation to others
  • Work through stress, anxiety and frustration
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Improve emotional flexibility and resilience
  • Increase intelligence/supporting abstract thinking and problem-solving
  • Practice self-regulation
  • Practice independence and making choices

Set up the environment

  • Have a variety of activities and play materials available to your child promote independence and choice. Consider offering two options if many choices become overwhelming. 
  • Offer creative art materials or building toys that can be used for open-ended play. This type of play may help your child use their imagination and build a sense of competency and accomplishment in creating something.
  • Incorporate music or song and dance/body movement that your child enjoys into the play. 
  • Consider incorporating the natural environment into the space, reflecting a connection to the land.
  • Include family and cultural materials and practices, ones that will help your child find a way to ground their identity within their play.

Respond to children’s play 

  • Recognize that your child’s reality may be different from what you have experienced. Their play and how they response to a situation is telling you something. 
    • Watch how your child is playing.
    • Listen to their comments and questions. 
    • Label and validate their feelings.
    • Ask questions to gain an understanding. 
  • Model calming strategies while playing together: deep breaths, draw a picture, take a walk, get a drink of water, take about feelings. 
  • Label your own feelings “I feel sad…”, “I feel happy…” 
  • Talk about the future “I wonder…”, “Can you imagine…”
  • Tell stories and listen to the stories your child shares in their play.
  • Stress can limit a child’s ability to problem solve. Be available to help your child work through challenges. 
  • Respond to the underlying needs of your child based on what you observe. Ask yourself the following questions:
    • What is happening?
    • Why is it happening?
    • What are they trying to tell me through their actions?
    • What changes can I make to help them?
    • What new skills do they need to learn?
  • It’s important to include family and cultural practices throughout the day, ones that will help your child find a way to ground themselves within their identity.

Respond to children’s questions and comments

Asking questions and making comments during play is another way for children to process new experiences, stressors or situations. At times children may remark on something that is uncomfortable for you to hear or you may feel you don’t know how to respond, this is natural.  When responding to these questions or comments:

  • Acknowledge that you have heard the child and pause (silently count to ten) to give yourself time to choose your words
  • Provide developmentally appropriate responses to questions
  • Keep the answers simple and factual
  • If you do not know the answer, respond in a way that allows you to investigate together. 
    • “That’s a great question. Let’s find out together.”
  • Reassure your child that they are safe and cared for by responding in a supportive way. Try to remain calm if you are feeling uncomfortable, as children are perceptive and can sense your emotions.
    • Try a breathing exercise when you feel your anxiety starting to grow. Share this with your child, i.e., “Let’s take five big breaths. Count them with me. 5-4-3-2-1. Does that feel better?”
  • Recognize and label emotions to help your child make meaning of their experiences. Use pictures to help them identify how they feel.
    • For example, “Abdullahi can’t play right now. Tell me how you feel? Show me which one.”


Play fosters creativity, imagination, resiliency and problem solving skills among many other benefits.  By playing with your child and supporting their play with other children, you are helping them build relationships and creating a safe space to explore their feelings.


Charbonneau, M., Crooker, R. & Slider, P. et. al. (2015). 1 2 3 Care:  A Trauma-Sensitive Toolkit for Caregivers of Children.  Retrieved from

McVittie, J. (2015). Resilience. Retrieved from

Brought to you by: Every Child Belongs