Using Stuffed Animals as Conversation Starters
If you’ve ever been a parent, worked with kids, or even been around kids, you understand the importance of stuffed animals in a child’s life. I remember when my daughter was 5, she had to have her tonsils out. Her mother and I got her a purple baby doll to “keep her company” as she went into surgery. From that point on, that six-inch tall purple doll became a source of comfort to her as she faced difficult things in life. There is no doubt that stuffed animals can bring comfort to a child, but did you know that they can also provide valuable insights into what is going on in a child’s life?
Fred Roger’s once said:
Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
Children talk through their play, and if you’re working with hurting young people, you need to be tuned into their play in order to understand what they are going through. Stuffed animals offer you an opportunity to get kids talking who might otherwise keep things bottled up inside.
When I started teaching Divorce Care 4 Kids [DC4K] (a support group for children of divorced parents), I remember the first time I read about the DC4K mascot named Herby – Herby Heart A Beatin’. Herby is the group mascot, and we use him extensively in DC4K. I can’t start to tell you the number of things that children have told me and other adult leaders through Herby that they would not share on their own.
I had worked with kids before, so it didn’t surprise me that young kids were willing to “talk” through Herby, but what did surprise me, and continues to surprise me, is how often even the older kids will speak through Herby. Using the stuffed animal, in this case our mascot, gives them the freedom to say things that they don’t feel comfortable sharing.
You don’t need a special mascot or stuffed animals to employ this tactic either. Any stuffed animals will do – though it does help to have a variety of choices for the kids to choose from so they can pick the stuffed animals they are most comfortable with.
You can try a variety of different tactics to use stuffed animals to share what they are going through:
- Encourage the child to select stuffed animals to represent each member of their family. Watch as they play and give voice to each stuffed animal.
- Encourage the child to pick one stuffed animal to represent them. You take that stuffed animal and pretend to be them (allow the child to “correct” you as need be). Ask the child to pick another stuffed animal and tell you who that animal represents. Allow the child to lead the interaction between the stuffed animals.
- Encourage the young person to show how the stuffed animals might act if they were experiencing specific emotions. (You might recall that acting out and understanding different emotions is an important part of the Super Simple Feelings Management Technique).
- Talk to the child about a specific stuffed animal and encourage them to tell you a story about the stuffed animal. Listen for clues to what might be going on in their life.
- Start to play with the stuffed animals yourself modeling what it looks like to express yourself through the stuffed animals.
- Whatever you do it, don’t force it. If the child isn’t ready to talk, use the opportunity to just play with the child and have a little fun. That relationship building may go a long way towards helping the child feel more comfortable talking to you in the future.