How to talk to kids can be a beguiling proposition.
In the early years, as parents, we spend so much time helping our kids develop language. We read to them, mirror words and phrases, and try to translate their babble into meaningful conversation. Every chortle that sounds even remotely like a word is a victory.
“At last they’re speaking and now I’ll be able to understand what my child needs! Finally, they’ll be able to talk with me!” I know I certainly had those thoughts, perhaps you did too. However, I soon realized – especially with school-aged kids – that there is a marked difference between just talking and talking about the big stuff.
“Big stuff” for them can be seemingly minor events in their life. Here’s some examples from my own life-with-kid!
- Not knowing who to play with at recess.
- Feeling anxiety about a birthday party (theirs or someone else’s).
- Missing a parent who is traveling.
- Feeling over-scheduled.
- Not enjoying an extra-curricular program.
- Being disciplined at school.
These, and many other nuanced moments of our kids’ days can get lost in the shuffle, buried and maybe never really articulated. However, even if you can tell there is something that needs to be aired, it can be challenging to find the right way to bring it up. Kids can clam up, or even not be able to recall, when asked about even slightly emotionally-tinged subjects.
However, when we give them the time and space to dialogue about these smaller events, we build pathways of communication. This is the foundation for trust that they will need to talk to us as they get older, and the topics get more complex. There is a lot of conscious energy in the early years of parenting that has to go into developing that trust.
Here to help…is a game.
Since we know that kids learn through play, it stands to reason that they also can articulate their feelings and communicate with you best, while they are using their imagination.
You may even be surprised about what they voice, and this presents an interesting opportunity to listen to their concerns, hopes and fears. Because they are speaking as a character you might find they are more free to articulate some more subtle things. Additionally, with this game, you’ll be able to model empathy and reflect their feelings. It is bonding becuase it is ure fun and reinforces the idea that you can talk openly with your family about feelings. It also supports essential executive function skills and social-emotional skills as well.
The Game is…Taxi!
The game “Taxi” is a classic theater game that we use in Child’s Play NY and when you play it in your home you just might find it that much easier to talk to kids about meaningful stuff. Watch the video below to see it in action at home and in camp.
Watch this Video to Learn How and Why to Play
The structure of the game is simple and allows for infinite variations and customization. The characters are a Taxi Driver (played initially by the adult) and the Passenger. The idea is you have a safe space (the car) to help get the Passenger from point A to point B and you can chat with them along the way in character.
As taxi drivers, parents (and teachers) get to model exceptional listening skills. For example: Reflecting feelings, mirroring emotions and being an empathic driver is essential to developing a great rapport with your “passenger”.
How to Play
- Set up at least two chairs – one for the Driver and one for the Passenger.
- Delegate who is the Driver – I suggest the adult starts here – you can always switch.
- Passengers wait in line, seated on the floor, as audience until it is there turn.
- Passenger “hails” the taxi. They need to know essential questions (help encourage drama!): Who are they? Where are they going? Why do they need to get there?
- The Driver’s job is to get them to their destination, while engaging them in conversation and helping add to the drama as needed.
- At the end of the ride there is a transaction (payment!) which can take any creative form you like.
Varieties that make it silly and personal (so you can talk to kids even more)
- Change up the Taxi for a Chariot, Batmobile or other mode of conveyance that speaks to your kids’ passions.
- Experiment with different animals and characters.
- Use any kind of physical pattern you want (going up a mountain, around the stream, inside a volcano, etc) and the passenger mirrors the motion of the cab driver.
- Request non-money payments (like a special song, dance or joke)
- Make the terrain wild enough that you have to fly over things: flap out the window, use turbo booster jets, get into a hot-air balloon or submarine. Just be silly and say yes to your own ideas!
- Have more than one person come into the car at a time: Kids can come as a pair (with a pet, sibling, BFF or arch-nemesis)
- With a group playing, encourage several people in the car with a hilarious “rideshare” situation.
- Play around with the reality of your taxi – is there a loud GPS? Windows that open in a funny way? A glove-compartment with the perfect snacks?
- Play it outside, as you walk to school, use the stroller, and especially as a great car game.
- For more ideas of how to help kids process feelings read this post.
Social-Emotional Benefits of Playing
Believing AS IF and Taking Perspective
Like in the best dramatic play games, the game Taxi, allows kids to make-believe AS IF they were someone else.
The fact of creating an imaginary situation can be regarded as a means of developing abstract thought. – Lev Vygotsky
When they play this game, kids are practicing perspective taking. They have to step outside themselves, imagining what another character would do in a hypothetical situation. This kind of evolved playing is key for developing social-emotional skills (SEL).
Safe Space to Talk About Emotion
In addition to the subtle moments of your child’s day, you might find this a great game to play when there are complex things going on at home.
A friend moves away.
There is a new sibling.
Fighting or separation at home.
A stressful conflict with siblings or peers.
There’s been a death in the family.
Practice Excellent Listening Skills
Like a great taxi cab driver, you can help make easy conversation in a safe space. Ask about who they are, what they are concerned with, and make conversation with them. While you’ll be modelling excellent listening skills, you’ll also be able to reflect feelings back at them and share empathy with their situation.
For example, take this seemingly silly scenario…
“I’m the royal baker and the new prince was just born – I have to get to the castle now and deliver the cake!”
Although it is a fantastical situation, make sure you greet it with real-world concern and empathy. This paves the way for the “baker” to open up about her feelings about the new prince which may, in fact, be standing in fr her new baby brother!
When kids start to play the taxi-driver, they will then be practicing the same listening skills that you modelled. Then, when they are not in a state of play, it will come more intuitively to them to use these same skills to be empathic and reflect feelings.
Vocalizing Thoughts Though Play
It wasn’t until I started to work with developmental psychologists in building play-based curriculum for my theater school, Child’s Play NY, that I began to really appreciate the cognitive benefits of play. When kids talk out-loud to themselves, especially while in a state of play, they are making sense of their world. Psychologists call this “inner speech” and we don’t do it as adults largely because it isn’t socially acceptable to just chatter to ourselves! However, kids actively do this kind of free-associative speech, especially while at play, and its cognitive and social-emotional benefits are profound.
You have an excellent opportunity to identify emotions that the passenger-kid is expressing. When kids can name their feelings they are empowered to be less reactive and more reflective especially when they experience that emotion in real life.
A Great Game for Executive Function Skills
I’m a big fan of this game because it sets up a structure that kids can repeat on their own. Once you set this in motion it can be played with infinite variety. Talk to kids about the “rules of play” and make sure they feel included in the steps of the game so they can duplicate it when they play. Developmental psychologists call this “scaffolding” – and just like in construction, a scaffold supports a structure while it is being built, and then can be removed! So once kids know the rules of the game they can set it up for themselves on playdates or at school.
Focus and Attention
Focus and attention is an Executieve Function skill that kids can benefit from practicing. The passengers need to make sure they take turns and don’t jump into the taxi before it is their time to go. In this way they are working on impulse control – through play!
Although improvisation happens best when kids are spontaneously listening and reacting in the moment, it is equally important that they plan in this game. Planning is another essential EF skill. Ask kids to map out 1) who they are, 2) where they are going and 3) why they need to get there BEFORE they come into the taxi. This part of the game is especially when you are playing in larger groups. Not only does this eliminate down-time, since watching a child think is not that exciting, but it gives them repeated practice with making a plan and following through with it.
There can be a wide-degree of personalization with this game, however, kids still need to follow the rules you lay out in order for this to be successful. The more kids can practice playing within a structure, the more ready they will be for this kind of skill when they play sports, do any kind of group work, carry out school work. This is the kind of game that helps with school-readiness.
Pretend Play at it’s Best
Kids will learn a lot about their imagination when you use objects to stand in for the real thing. No need to have a real steering wheel, and obviously not a real car! Make-believe with nothing at all, or use a pan lid, or other round object. Teaching kids that they can have fun with their own flights of fancy is as important as anything else you can offer them. Talk to kids through the language of play and you’ll find new and unexpected ways to bond with them. Watch this for a little silly inspiration.
How this game helps boost literacy
Those fundamental journalistic questions: Who, What, Where, Why, When that are essential for good storytelling, are also necessary for excellent playing. Kids need to answer all those questions for themselves before they start playing.
Talk to kids about the best ways to make a compelling story, or better yet, model it yourself as a passenger in the taxi. First, I always like to do a demo round where there is no real sense of urgency, drama or conflict for the passenger. Then you heighten the stakes and kids are amazed at what a little more drama will do for the action.
I’m excited to hear about the ways that you play Taxi in your home to talk to kids!
Thanks for reading and watching.