Game On: Playing Your Way Through Discipline

One night my 5-year old said, “Mama, we have a problem: I don’t like to sleep.” I agreed it was a problem because unlike her, I loved to sleep. Seeing the impasse between us she offered up a solution, “Well I am going to be nocturnal like my hamster then.” I told her that this was still going to be a problem because I was diurnal. She told me, “Mama—don’t use your big words with me.”

The one thing you can count on with a young child is the more unyielding you are, the more they will dig in and resist.

From battles over going to the bathroom to leaving the park, a young child routinely struggles with transitions and can launch into fits of frustration. The other side of young children is that you will never meet more playful and joyful people. They have an unparalleled capacity to make the routine things in life seem new again and their giggles are infectious. They live in the moment and have an appetite for play and imagination that is irresistible.

The challenge is that a young child is predictably unpredictable! They can swing from one emotional extreme to the other seemingly without warning. Transitions with a young child can feel like navigating land mines. Teeth do need to get brushed and breakfast does need to be eaten. While young kids live in the world of play, we live in the world of work and responsibility. Young kids don’t act like us and we can’t remember being (or thinking) like them. The gap between us is real, but instead of focusing our energy trying to make them change, we would be better off employing what we know to be consistently true of them.

Wired for Play

Play is a hard-wired instinct in the brains of all mammal species. The instinct to play never completely leaves us and young children can quickly get caught up in its energy. The challenge for adults is that our various concerns and volume of work seem to bury the places, time, and energy we have to play, and we lose all sense of its usefulness. Yet if the instinct to play is so strong in young kids, then it behooves us to discover how we might harness this capacity to use to mutual advantage in our challenging times with them.

Perhaps part of the reason why we haven’t thought of play as the answer to some of our tricky times with young kids is that we hold onto the idea that discipline teaches a child how to be more mature.

Discipline is serious business! In those moments when they are doubling-down and resistant, the apparently unintuitive idea that we might play our way out of it provokes a fear that we aren’t preparing them for the “real world.” No one wants a spoiled and entitled child, but maturity doesn’t come strictly from lessons and discipline. (After all, don’t most of us know adults who behave like preschoolers despite all of the lessons and discipline they have purportedly received?) Maturity, in fact, most reliably comes from deep attachment to and security from those who care for children.

Understanding the Young Brain

If we provide the conditions for healthy development through attachment and emotional safety, then a child should naturally grow to be more tempered, accept lacks and losses, deal with change without erupting, and use their words to communicate frustration instead of hitting or screaming. From the ages of five to seven (and up to nine for more sensitive kids), a child’s brain should sufficiently develop to have the capacity for more sophisticated mixed feelings and ideas, which in turn generates emotional control and tempered behaviour. Instead of living in the moment like a preschooler does, they are able to talk about having mixed thoughts: part of me wants to do this but the other part of me wants something different, as well as pause and think before they speak. As brain development further unfolds, they can see and consider the consequences of their actions before acting out. The impulsive swings of emotion that are typical of the preschooler are slowly replaced with a more tempered child who can feel two things at the same time: I don’t want to go to sleep but I feel sleepy. Until then, we have to direct a young child to get dressed, clean up their toys, and adhere to bedtime.

What is unique about the very young child is the exclusivity of their experience. They are engaged by what is in front of them alone and that is why transitions and being told what to do next feel like something is being taken away. This singular focus is also what makes play a wonderful strategy because it naturally grabs their attention and creates a painless segue out of the activity they are currently occupied by.

Play Over Punishment

Most traditional forms of discipline aim to change a child’s emotions or their mind to a wholly dissimilar state (from the joy of finger- painting to the harsh reality of being banished to the corner for not cleaning up!), with the end goal being obedience. From time-outs, to consequences, and “123 magic,” attempts to coerce them with threats, separation, and bribes reveal that we just don’t understand how young kids operate. Leveling consequences against them is pointless because they don’t have the capacity to thoughtfully consider what might happen when all they possess is a one-track attention span that can only focus on the present. They routinely get in trouble for reacting impulsively without any understanding from adults that they simply lack impulse control until the crucial age between five and seven (or later).

When a young child is sent for a time-out (which even Canadian pediatricians now oppose), it can create insecurity in the relationship and stir up frustration and alarm over losing their attachments.

So, where does play come in? The beautiful thing about play is that it offers us a reprieve in difficult moments. Play is not real life and there are no real consequences. We can pretend in play that we don’t have teeth, that we don’t have to brush our teeth, that our stuffed animal will brush our teeth for us, or that someone stole our teeth. It doesn’t matter whether teeth are real or not and that is the whole point of playing it out—that is fairly irresistible to children. The more we are in play, the less coerced our children feel. The less coerced they feel, the more we preserve their will (and avoid their defiance!). It gives us a chance to play our way through teeth brushing or diffuse the “crisis” and gently lead them back to the real world where their real teeth exist.

It’s okay that our young kids have their own mind and we should want this for them. When they are 14 or 24 years old, we will want them to chart their own course and to take responsibility for their decisions and goals, and by then we hope they will have the learned experience to back these up. Until then, the “I do it myself” mode that appears in the two- or three-year-old is the birthplace for this autonomous personhood down the road. The problem is we have to care for them at a time when they really don’t know what is good for them and are inherently prone to disagree with us—simply because we are thinking of consequences and they aren’t/can’t. We have to preserve this spirit inside of them that wants to figure things out on their own and that is where the play mode comes in handily.
mother holding kid

Getting in Play Mode

When we are at play, we are suspended from work and the realities of life. It is in play where a child can develop a sense of agency and voice their thoughts and ideas (as wacky as they are), without any threat to their existence or to others. Play allows a child to discharge emotion and to express themselves, while at the same time preserving our relationship with them—a true win-win. The great thing about play is that after a good giggle or some absurdity like a game of hide and seek for “missing teeth,” your relationship is stronger and you are in better position to lead them.

While getting my young kids ready for bed one night, I remember them “ganging up” together and telling me they weren’t going to brush their teeth. I told them that they were funny and to get back at it, but the more I persisted, the more they resisted with all their 5-and 3 1/2-year-old might. My youngest looked at me and said, “You are not the boss of us,” and the absurdity of it registered deeply inside of me. In my head I though, “Oh, I wish sometimes I wasn’t the boss of you,” and nothing left to do but cry or push back more, I tool another path towards play. I told them since they didn’t need me anymore, I was going to go back and be a baby because it seemed juice fun. I lay down on the bathroom floor and with legs and arms flailing in the air, I cried, “Gaa gas, goo goo, poo poo, woo woo, I’m a baby, I need milky, I need hugs, I need my diaper changed,” and then burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter. While I was clearly at play, my youngest said to her sister, “Let’s never let her be the baby again okay?” With that they proceeded to brush their teeth. The surprising bonus was how good I felt after playing out my own frustration, with them none the wiser and their sense of agency preserved.

A real problem is that we don’t often feel playful between the pressures of work and rearing children but what if we just accepted from the get-go that this is what comes with caring for a young child? What if we just understood that they are single-minded, sometimes ill-tempered and prone to erupt, joyful, playful, silly, and routinely baffling, instead of trying to make them grow up, be serious, be correct, be responsible, and think about consequences (which, by the way, just doesn’t work)?

What if instead of battling our way to bed, we played our way to bedtime—from dance parties to wrestling matches, from songs we make up about our day, to fictional characters that journey with us into our dreams?

What if we let play carry us instead of always having to worry about discipline and keeping our cool when they don’t have the same agenda as us? How much better-off would our relationship be if we let play carry us over the impasse that exists between the mature and the immature? What if we went right back to the place where we are all the same, where life isn’t real, where emotions are safe to come out, where fun brings us together, and just let it bond us when the difficulties of our day threaten to pull us apart? What if knowing and applying all this made our lives, in fact, easier?

Play can be the answer to so many of the conflicts we face with young children, but we don’t see it because we are often focused on the outcome rather than the most promising way of getting there. There is time enough when they will join us in maturity but for now, they offer us the unparalleled opportunity to witness and remember what it was like to be young and to feel like there is no other care in the world. When we stop pushing them to live in the world like we do (not their job) and enter into their worlds that are full of play and pretend, the differences between us will melt and we will find a way to lead them to where we need to go. The wonderful thing about play is that it has the capacity to heal and help us all if we only let it in. •


This article first appeared in 40 EcoParent | embrace the journey, Summer 2020,

Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet counselling center, she is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), which has been translated into 11 languages, and a children’s picture book The Sorry Plane.