Structured Doll Play
My husband and I, along with our two sons – ages 4 and 1 ½ years, recently underwent a cross-country move. As corporate relocations tend to go, we moved into a temporary apartment and a preschool that happened to have openings for both boys. Within 2 months, we moved again – this time into our permanent house and, a few months later, to a preschool located near the house. That’s two house moves and two preschool moves in six months.
While our 4-year-old, Graham, had treated the initial move like a grand adventure, the final switch into his permanent daycare was less than smooth. His teachers weren’t as fun (so he said), and the other kids weren’t his friends. Since switching preschools, he started to have more tears about going to school in the morning. Over the next few months, the resistance to attending preschool dramatically increased. He had frequent tummy aches, would sob at drop-off, and ultimately required a teacher handoff at the door. He even began to cry about going to school when we’d tuck him into bed at night, knowing it was coming the next morning. Soon, our normally-awesome sleeper started to wander into our bedroom at night.
When my husband and I would ask him what was going on he’d either say that he didn’t like his teacher or the kids at school were mean to him. One morning, my husband had Graham strapped in the car – ready to go to school – when Graham said he had to make a potty stop. I stayed behind to take him to school after he was finished.
I poked my head into the bathroom to let Graham know that I would be the one taking him in that morning. He looked up at me from the toilet and tears started rolling down his face. Through a strained voice, he said, “Mommy, I am feeling very sad.” We ascertained that he did not actually need to go potty, but rather was delaying the inevitable school drop-off. We washed up and moved to the living room couch to talk more about it. There, he told me that kids at school were being mean to him.
My husband and I, frankly worried about bullying, scheduled a parent-teacher conference to learn more. When I told his teacher about his most recent delay tactic of asking to use the bathroom, she chimed in that he was excessively asking to use the restroom at school too. This is a great school, with incredibly patient teachers, so when they use the word “excessive”, I knew it wasn’t an exaggeration. The teachers also reinforced that they were seeing no issues with the other children at school. In fact, they said, Graham regularly plays with almost everyone in his class. Of course, there are normal disputes over toys, etc, but certainly nothing out of the ordinary.
They were pretty certain we were dealing with garden-variety separation anxiety. They gave us some ideas on how to deal with it at home. They assured us that separation anxiety can ebb and flow, and creep up every now and again without much warning – especially if a family has undergone so many changes in a short period, as ours had.
We tried the tactics that the school gave us, but none of them seemed to help, so I called Ms. Amy. She had been a great help to my son while we were still in the Dallas area, and she knew Graham. Amy agreed this sounded very much like separation anxiety and, among other great tips, suggested we try structured doll play to provide Graham with some additional comfort with our school drop-off/pick-up routine.
I tried it that very night. I asked Graham if he wanted to play a new game with me. He was very excited to try something new! I told him we were going to play “School Drop-off,” and he immediately picked out dolls and stuffed animals to represent each member of the family. The dolls sat down for breakfast together, like we do as a family, then the daddy doll told Graham’s doll that it was time to go to school. As my son’s doll approached the toy car, he stopped and spoke – through his doll voice – and said, “I don’t want to go to school.” I had the daddy doll ask him why. My son’s doll said, “Because I poop a lot… I have diarrhea.”
This was not at all what I was expecting to hear, but it instantly made sense! A few weeks back, Graham had a little stomach bug and had a potty accident at school. School policy dictated that he had to wear a Pull-up for the rest of the day. At the time, it didn’t seem to phase him, but apparently the incident had left some deeper marks than we all knew.
I focused on my doll again, and used the daddy doll to tell him that he was sick then, but he is not sick now and that those types of accidents would not happen anymore. We played through the rest of the drop-off and pick-up routine. Graham loved it so much he asked to play it again two more times!
The next morning, I expected his anxiety to magically be gone, but it wasn’t. It seemed a little lessened but not by much. We briefly reinforced what the daddy doll had told the Graham doll the night before as he left for school. That evening, Graham asked to play “School Drop-off” again, so we did, and there was no talk of dreading school the next day. His drop-off the next morning was just a bit smoother.
Throughout that week, the drop-offs became increasingly easier. The potty break requests during school dwindled as well. Now, almost 2 months later, we have no mysterious tummy aches, no night-wakings, and no significant anxiety about drop-off at preschool. Graham still doesn’t love the idea of going to school on a Monday morning, but it’s nothing like it used to be. He even comes home talking about friends he’s played with that day. Every now and then, he will ask to play “School Drop-off” with me, but the interest in it usually dwindles about halfway through. He doesn’t seem to need it anymore.
I couldn’t believe how effective structured doll play was for Graham. Not only that he was excited to play it but that he was instantly able to tell me what he was feeling – where weeks of asking had only led to canned answers. As his doll was telling mine all his worries, it was a little bit of an awkward transition for me to process what he was telling me as a mother, then respond as a doll character. It was also apparent to me how long it had been since I had played dolls and pretend. I felt pretty rusty – it’s not as easy as it used to be, and felt a little silly too. Also, in not so little ways, my reaching out to Graham with an idea for a game, and making a concerted effort to leave behind household chores to get on the floor for some focused play time, made him feel valued and loved as well.
I can’t thank Amy enough for these lessons!