Child psychologist stresses importance of play

The Inbox

By Elizabeth Lolarga, VERA Files

"Play lightens one's load."

Somehow that sentence in English doesn't quite approximate this almost heartbreaking statement of a child of an overseas Filipino worker who deeply misses a parent: "Pag naglalaro, gumagaang ang loob (Playing lightens the feelings)."

Clinical psychologist Ma. Lourdes "Honey" Carandang is a pioneer of play and family therapy in the Philippines. She  heads the MLAC Institute for Children and Families, an association that strongly advocates play therapy.

With her MLAC team of psychologists, Carandang has conducted many parenting workshops in the barangay level, especially in a big child-friendly city like Quezon City.

She has noticed that when it comes to activities regarding children's rights, "the participation of kids is token only."

"Adults don't seem to listen to them on where they can play.They don't realize why play is essential to children," she shared some of her observations.

She said adults should know that "If they (children) cannot play, there's something wrong."

She related she has dealt with a child so traumatized he couldn't play because he was being beaten up by his father. In another case, the child saw the mother killed by the father.

When the patient starts to play, the child is on his way to healing. The ability to play shows a child's resiliency.

Carandang, a psychology professor at the University of the Philippines, explained: "Nobody can teach them that. It's natural for them, it's their way of being and coping whether they come from the low-income or high-income class. Not only will this make them happy, it is essential for normal development."

There are ambitious parents who drive their children to excel, scheduling their kids' after-school activities every hour so the child ends up both hurried and harried.

Carandang, who has been named National Social Scientist, said she had a patient who used to be tutored until 9 p.m., began to lose weight and looked very sad. She warned the parents that the child was headed towards depression.

"Our culture seems to dictate that even with our free time, we should do something useful and productive. I don't agree with over-scheduling. A child needs space to be or he/she will be unhappy and lose childhood," she said.

In her workshops with poor families, she noted how open they were about their questions and their families' conditions.

Contrary to what  others told them  that to get their attention, they should  bring rice and sugar, the poor families  were eager to discuss beyond things that fill the stomach.

"They're used to hardships. They're appreciative of our workshops.They are eager to know how to have happy family, the best way to discipline their children," Carandang said.

Asked how busy parents can manage children who prefer television or computer games to real play, Carandang said the American Psychological Association has brought out a term called 'Internet addiction' that is similar to any addiction where a person can get a high. The games are well-constructed, leaving the child hungry for more to improve the self. There's something about it in the way you win and lose that makes the child not want to give it up.

The MLAC Institute, which is at an advocacy stage, believes that adults can do something about this latest addiction by setting limits.

"We have that power to set limits," Carandang said. "Some people give up too easily, but they must make the effort to understand what makes computer games attractive to children."

She said parents must realize that children still need their attention. Otherwise, children may resort to actions that are unexplainable to parents like the son of a rich father who stole something in school.

Carandang said unconsciously the child chose a behavior that was a meaningful, effective way to get the father's attention. After consulting with her, the father learned to spend quality time every week with his son.

Quality time is predictable and regular. It requires the parent's full attention, thus ensuring emotional security.

Play therapy is not only for children. Carandang said she has gotten requests from adults to do play therapy workshops for male executives in Guam. The executives are burning out, losing their creativity due to pressure to produce and to work.

She  cited as example Google, the multi-national internet research  company, which allows  employees flexibility in their work schedule. They take breaks to swim or goof around.

Carandang said to many, taking time to relax during office hours  may be called lakwatsa (idling), but play is essential for adults to replenish creative juices.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")