Paula sighed as she watched her 20 month old son romping on the floor with her mother’s dachshund. He adored the dog. How was she going to explain to him that ‘Wow Wow’  had to go back to Granny’s home when she returned from her overseas vacation? How would her child cope with the loss?

From the time Matthew could crawl he’d head straight for Wow Wow, even though their distance from his granny’s home meant he didn’t often have the opportunity to play with his four-legged friend.

It had seemed a great idea at the time to offer to doggy-sit for these few weeks. But Matthew didn’t have the vocabulary or the grasp of language to understand that Wow Wow soon had to return to his own home.

‘It’s been so great for him to  have the dog’s company,’ thought Paula. ‘How do I help him understand? To cope with the goodbye?’

She hadn’t expected to find the answer to her question at the ‘Play’ workshop that evening, arranged by the Parent and Toddler Group.

It was a fascinating evening as the parents explored just how important Play is for all aspects of the child’s development. But it was the demonstration of ‘Structured Play’ that was the ‘Aha’ moment of the evening for Paula. She came home with a tool she knew she could use to help her toddler with the transition they would soon be facing.

The next morning Paula sorted through the toys. The ‘family’ of little dolls from Educare would be perfect for this. And here was a plastic dog that would make a great stand-in for Wow Wow. Paula practised in her mind how she would act out the scene, remembering the key points the workshop facilitator had given them.

After breakfast when Matthew was in a quiet mood, Paula sat down on the rug with him and took out the toys.

Granny is going on holiday. She puts her suitcase in the car.

‘Come, Wow Wow” she says. ‘You are going to have a holiday too. You are going to stay with Paula and Matthew.’ 

Granny drives Wow Wow to Paula and Matthew’s house. 

Matthew is so happy. Matthew loves Wow Wow. 

‘Wow Wow can have a holiday with you,’ said Granny.  ‘Bye bye, Matthew. I’m going now.’ 

Matthew and Wow Wow have lots of fun together. They play together. They go for walks in the garden. They cuddle together. At bedtime Matthew sleeps in his bed and Wow Wow sleeps in his special doggie bed.

One day Mummy says, ‘Matthew, it’s one more sleep then Granny is coming back. Granny will come to our house and say, “Hello, Paula. Hello Matthew. I’ve come to fetch Wow Wow to take her home to my house.”‘ 

Matthew and Wow Wow play together.  At bedtime Matthew sleeps in his bed and Wow Wow sleeps in his special doggie bed.

Next day Matthew hears Granny’s car coming.  

Granny gives Matthew a kiss. ‘Hello Matthew.  Thank you for looking after Wow Wow.  Wow Wow and I must go to our home now.’ 

Matthew feels sad.  He loves Wow Wow lots and lots.  He gives Wow Wow a big hug.  

‘Bye bye, Wow Wow,’ says Matthew. 

‘Bye bye Matthew,’ says Granny.  ‘Wow Wow wants you to come visit soon.’ 

Granny and Wow Wow get in the car. Bye bye. They drive away to their house. 

Mummy holds Matthew’s hand. They wave bye bye to Wow Wow. 

 Matthew is sad. Mummy gives him a big cuddle. 

‘ You love Wow Wow lots and lots. We can go to Granny’s house soon so you can play with Wow Wow.’ 


Matthew stared at his mother as she told the story.

When she finished, he said, ”gain.’

‘Again?’ Matthew nodded. Paula repeated the story as closely as she could to her original telling. Again Matthew listened intently. Then he toddled over to Wow Wow and lay with his head on the dog’s tummy. He seemed to be processing Paula’s story.

Later in the day Paula repeated the story to Matthew. And the next morning she repeated it again before her mother arrived.

She heard the car’s tyres in the driveway. Matthew looked up. His blue eyes were soft and wet.

‘Wow Wow go Ganny,’ he said.

‘Yes, Wow Wow must go live with Granny now,’ Paula said.

Matthew and Paula watched as Granny and Wow Wow drove off. Paula’s heart was wrenched to see her little boy so sad at losing his special friend. She gave him a cuddle.

‘ You love Wow Wow lots and lots. We can go to Granny’s house soon so you can play with Wow Wow.’

Structured Play helps young children to understand because the auditory sense only becomes dominant when children are more than five years old. By using a story approach that is visually engaging and that allows the child to physically handle the props, you can make it easier for your little one to understand a new experience. Here are a few pointers to hep you use this tool when your child is facing a transition or a loss.

* Choose a time when your child is calm and settled to share the story.

* Tell the story in the present tense, as though it’s happening now.

* Use the names of the actual characters this story relates to. (eg Matthew, Wow Wow, Mummy, Granny)

* Keep your sentences very short and simple.

* Use only language your young child understands.

* The younger the child, the shorter the story needs to be.

* Have a suitable toy to represent every significant character in the situation.

* Using the dolls, act out in simple stages the scenario the child will experience.

* Use direct speech, as though the characters are talking.

* Use a different ‘voice’ for each character and add sounds ( eg car engine or sound of    car horn).

* Acknowledge the feelings the child is likely to experience.

* Use simple repetition of phrases.

* Conclude the story with the positive outcome that’s needed.


If you’d like Val to run a training session on Play for staff or for parents, email her at  For more about Val click here.