"Baby Polar Bear" or The Healing Power of Play
I have never really enjoyed playing with children. I didn't play with dolls as a child or babysit as a teen. In fact, until I was about 28 years old, I swore that I would never have my own offspring. Finally, evolution or something in my hard-wired biology won out, and I realized that OK yes, fine, I did want to have children. And I knew that this would involve playing with them (obviously) but it didn't really register as something that was going to be as important as things like reading or math. I imagined myself as more of an art project kind of parent, rather than one who would engage in lots of imaginary back and forth. Deep down - and with a stunning combination of arrogance and ignorance (they often go together, don't they?) - I believed that pretend play was a necessary, yet tedious stage that kids eventually outgrew when they became "real" people or could at least play primarily with other kids. Well friends, the universe is a funny mistress, indeed.
Five years ago I was gifted a differently-wired kid with Sensory Processing Disorder who did not naturally learn how to play because of his sensory issues. Unfortunately, this is something that my husband and I did not realize for the first four years of his life. It started early on when he was a baby. He didn't play with toys, but rather he would push them away, cry, fuss, or refuse to engage, turning his face away. Now that I have a seemingly neurotypical one-year-old, I finally know what it looks and feels like when your baby holds toys purposefully, explores them, manipulates them, and truly engages. It brings you joy. But at the time, I didn't know.
Over the course of more than four years, my son's constant lack of self-regulation - i.e. being calm enough to focus on something vs. being in fight or flight mode - had prevented him from moving through the most basic developmental stages of play. Now at four-and-a-half years old my son didn't pretend. He didn't build. He refused to respond when stuffed animals or Lego characters talked to him. He simply said, no you do it. Make them talk. Do this. Do that. No. No. No. At his daycare, they sent home report cards calling him a "leader" because he simply told other kids what to do in play scenarios, without engaging himself, delegating action to his peers from the sidelines.
It is hard to admit now that I thought my son's frustrating behavior was a reflection of his temperament and that he was just an unpleasant kid to be around. In reality, T wasn't learning the skills that most typical infants, babies, toddlers, and kids pick up seamlessly and effortlessly. T's behavior reflected gross motor planning delays, not character flaws. And he was suddenly using alarming and aggressive behavior to tell us what he couldn't communicate with words: he was suffering, he had ideas that he couldn't make his body execute, he was trapped in a world and a body he didn't understand, he knew he was falling behind his peers, he was experiencing trauma, and he was fighting for his life
In July of 2019, I flew with T to Chicago to stay with a dear friend who is a child development specialist and to meet with some of her trusted colleagues who would assess T. What my arrogant and ignorant self quickly learned from this friend, her colleagues, and the obsessive research that followed, was that play was not a stage to tolerate or get through as a parent, but rather the very foundation for the skills that all humans need to exist in the world successfully - problem solving, flexible thinking, creativity, communication. I knew this intellectually on some level, but it is a very different beast when a child who does not know how to play is living in your home, tearing things off your walls and howling at you for no apparent reason.
Over the course of four days, my dear friend modeled for me with her own son and with T, how to play in a therapeutic way. When T picked up an object and didn't know what to do with it, she would ask, is that a truck? If the response was "no", she would pivot, and use more facial expressions than words. Is that an ice cream cone? He might provide the slightest nod, but she would see a glimmer of potential, expanding slightly, engaging him patiently. What flavor is it? Trying to pull him out and get him to communicate. Chocolate.
Meanwhile, her own son, a few months younger than T, was chatting our ears off, bursting with ideas, imagination, and pretend scenarios. It nearly broke my heart to see the two in contrast with one another.
At the end of the the four days in Chicago, my friend gently explained, T's play skills are a little delayed. She introduced the DIRFloortime model - the approach she uses to work with children with autism - and her wealth of knowledge about Dr. Greenspan, the man who pioneered this model to help children with developmental delays. She shared the Profectum website, which provided free training for parents. This will help him, follow his lead, meet him where he is, he'll get there. And then she drove us to the airport and sent us off into the new direction of our lives.
We arrived home to the D.C.-area with a "diagnosis" of Sensory Processing Disorder (more assessments would follow and as any parent of a SPD kid knows, this is a fraught issue that I won't delve into here). The occupational therapist had suggested using the Floortime model every day to help T and I rebuild the relationship-based reciprocity that we were lacking and to help him develop confidence around problem solving and communication. Upon arrival in our kitchen, I announced to my husband that we would now be playing "therapeutically" with our son at least an hour a day. My husband responded the same way I had, But T doesn't play. He just knocks things down. He demands we carry out actions on his behalf. He just wants to be thrown in the air or chased around the house. And most of the time he just whines and fusses and says, NO.
But we had to try. On a Saturday afternoon I asked my son where he wanted to play. He chose his room. He shut the door, requested the light off, blinds open, with natural light. I left my cell phone outside and turned the visual timer to one hour. I looked at him and he looked away. I thought to myself, how can this approach be child-led if my child doesn't demonstrate any interest or ideas? I waited, smiled at him. I didn't know what to do. I grabbed his stuffed animals and tried to make them talk to him. He refused. No.
I remembered what one of the parents in the videos from the Profectum website had done and so I climbed into T's old crib. His eyes lit up and he tried, unsuccessfully, to climb in with me. He couldn't do it, his body wouldn't do what he wanted it to do, so he started to meltdown. Quickly, I got out of the crib and moved his feet between the rungs, showed him where to put his hands, how to swing his leg over. And I encouraged him, you can do it, it's OK, I've got you. He eventually got the steps down and climbed in with me. We started throwing stuffed animals in the air and bouncing up and down. He was laughing. I floated the idea of a birthday party. T seemed to engage. We then spent an entire hour throwing stuffed animals in the air and singing happy birthday over and over. Not exactly an imagination extravaganza. Was I doing this right? I decided it didn't matter, an hour of undivided attention certainly wasn't going to hurt.
And so it began. We played every afternoon for an hour in his room for months. A storyline emerged after a few days: he was a baby polar bear who had just been born and he didn't know how to talk, walk, take naps, or drink milk. I was of course, mama polar bear, helping the baby through the rhythms of a day. He would climb into his old crib with the exact foot positioning I had taught him, he would "sleep" for a minute and I would lay on his bed, feeling myself slipping into a coma. Then baby polar bear would shoot up out of the crib and sound the alarm, time to wake up! We would eat, then jump on the bed a little bit, and then lunch, then back to bed, and so on again and again. It felt as as if my son was starting from scratch, returning to his infancy, learning to exist in the world all over again, in the safety of his room with the door shut.
Since July, baby polar bear has grown up a bit. He has relegated his younger brother, D, to the "baby seal" role in the his polar landscape. Some days, baby polar bear wants to cuddle with me or dad in a cave of pillows and hunt for fish, while on other days he is a "big brother" polar bear calling the shots. Other times, T seems to use the polar persona as a tool to practice play skills that he knows on some level are delayed. For example, T asks to "play" baby polar bear, then simply dons the character like a costume so that he can comfortably play with his baby brother's toys and make goo-goo ga-ga sounds without embarrassment. He also uses it to work on skills, like building with magnet-tiles, without the pressure of performing like he sees his classmates at school perform with the same toy. And sometimes, recently, T has new ideas that don't include polar bears at all.
Yesterday, T and I had a polar bear session before we were to pick up D from daycare. I was in the bathroom and shouted to T, OK, take your binky out so I can understand what you are saying while we play. And then he waltzed in, swung the bathroom door open confidently, and he placed one hand on his hip. His other hand gestured like a teenager as he announced, Actually, mom, I am going to keep it in my mouth until baby polar bear grows up and then I will get rid of it. I'm not quite ready yet. I couldn't help but laugh at his seeming self-awareness about the whole baby polar bear and play process. And then off we went to hunt down fish and float on blanket ice caps and roll in the couch cave one more time.
I know you are all hoping I will conclude by saying how much fun I am having rolling around on my dirty floor, fishing for imaginary meals with my son. That mama polar bear is really in her element. The reality is, I still kind of dread playing and I need a third cup of coffee to get my game face on. But do I think play is worth my time and helping his development and our relationship? Without a doubt.