Family Connection in Hard Times: Play Maps

Play Maps

In an article in the Child Life Bulletin (CLC, Winter 2014), Play Maps and Life Lines: New and Borrowed Techniques for Crossing Cultural and Generational Divides (Vilas, 2014), I explored expressive arts activities that bring families together.

When we think of family closeness, perhaps play is not the first modality that comes to mind. However, play is a universal language. All adults played at some point in their childhoods. With this in mind, play maps are a great way to revisit our childhood play memories and celebrate those of our children and parents. It is a wonderful activity to do in person, as well as a multi-generational activity to do via video chat with your parents and kids together. The technique is borrowed from other disciplines (McLaughlin, 2010; Gregg, 2002) and I tweaked the activity to fit the needs of child life specialists working with children facing issues of loss and illness. The goal of the technique is to connect families with inner resources of coping and hope through heightened awareness of past joys and obstacles. An equally important goal is empowering connection, understanding, and empathy between family members through conversation about similarities and differences in memories of play and life experiences.

The play map is an expressive art activity designed to connect children and adults with pleasurable memories of play. It reminds the child of past joys as well, helping them imagine present and future times of happiness. When done in tandem with a caregiver, it builds shared appreciation between adult and child. If your child is too young to draw representational art, or has a physical disability that prohibits them from drawing, they can still act as an art director and tell you what to draw.


• Paper

• Pencil/Pen

• Crayons/Markers/Water color pencils/Paint


Setting the Stage

Gather your materials, and set up a comfortable and inviting space to draw. A kitchen or dining room table work well, but you can also gather in whatever living space is most comfortable. You might want to set the mood by having some music in the background. If you are able to connect in your parent(s) via a video chat or phone call, by all means bring them into your shared space to participate.

Drawing Together

Ask your child(ren) to draw a map of a place where they like to play, showing the place, toys, types of play and people involved. They can draw a place representing outdoors or inside, or one of each. It can be an arial view, a floor plan, or any view that they choose. There is no right or wrong way to make a play map. Perhaps show them a simple sample of a map that you draw on the spot, because that will show them that it doesn’t have to be fancy and doesn’t require any special artistic ability.

While they are drawing, you do the same, thinking about childhood memories of places you played, people you played with, and the type of play you most enjoyed.

Show and Tell

When you are all done, compare your maps and share memories and details about games, rules, toys & playmates. You might want to videotape each person’s share out. I treasure this video of my mom reminiscing about ice skating on Penny’s pond.

How are your maps different and how are they the same? What did you learn about one another that you didn’t know before?

I wish you enjoyable conversations and discoveries about one another. Please share any feedback about your experience in the comment section of my blog, or email me at I would love to see your play maps!

Thank you to Ngawang, Brianna, Joyce, Kim, and Elyse for allowing me to include your play maps.

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