For children, playing is the central form of communication. Because of their developmental stage, children do not yet have the ability to use language to reflect on their experiences in a meaningful way. Play becomes the vehicle to communicate and process their feelings and experiences. (Chethik, 2000) Below are some examples of children engaging in typical play. What is it they are trying to communicate about their internal experience?
Rachel is a three-year-old girl. She started nursery for the first time and had a hard time adjusting. In school, she had a difficult time separating from her mother, was extremely shy, and did not initiate any activities without significant amounts of prompting from teachers. After coming home from school every day, she chose to play school. She assigned her mother the role of teacher and proceeded to name all her dolls and stuffed animals in accordance with the different children in her class. She set up an elaborate classroom in the playroom of her house, and assigned herself a new name, âRivka,â who was an active participant in her class. It was Rivkaâs birthday every day, and she made all the important decisions about the games that were played. Essentially, Rivka was a drastically different student than Rachel. It could even be argued that Rivka was the kind of student Rachel wished she could be.
Chaim is an eight-year-old boy who is bullied by his peers. He prefers to read books during recess and is not particularly good at sports. For that reason, he does not like to join the organized sports during recess, preferring instead to sit on the side and read, or talk to one of his friends. He struggles with being made fun of by some of his classmates who are more athletic than he is. In his play, he builds elaborate Lego cities with different armies. He identifies himself as the bully in his game, the strong and powerful leader of the army who âbeats upâ or âkillsâ those he does not like or those who donât listen to him. In his play, Chaim identifies with the bullies. He becomes that which he is fearful of and uses his play as an attempt to master the experience.
Sarah is a six-year-old girl whose mother recently returned home from the hospital with a baby boy. Since her mother returned home, Sarah has been spending much of her time playing with her baby dolls. She wheels them around in a stroller, shushes them to sleep, and even changes their diapers and feeds them. She sings the same songs her mother signs to the baby, and even mimics her motherâs mannerisms to a tee. She and her mother became âMommiesâ together. At other times, Sarah regresses into the state of a âbaby.â She will say âgagaâ and âbabaâ and even crawl around on the floor. She has been feeding herself for the last three years but now wants her mother and father to feed her. Sarahâs play reflects her inner clash between growing up and being a baby. In her play, she can express that conflict and act out both sides, enabling her the opportunity to exist in both worlds, at least in her play, and offer some resolution.
Childhood is ripe with conflict. As children grow up, they are forced to navigate in a very complex world. Children often feel intense wishes and desires that conflict with what they know the adults around them value. A simple example is a child who wants to have ice cream or candy for dinner, when they know that Mom or Dad may forbid this. One the one hand, they are faced with their desire for ice cream, but this conflicts with their desire to please their parents. In this case, play can be an opportunity to express and resolve the conflict, which at times can feel overwhelming.
Play also allows the child to take on the roles of others in his or her life. A child can be the mother, father, sister, brother, or even pet. In this way, the childâs play becomes an important vehicle to help the child develop empathy for others.
In summary, play helps a child make sense of his or her experience. (Chethik, 2000)
Often, children develop problems in their lives and it becomes clear that there is some impairment in their play. If a child is not able to engage his or her fantasy world and play openly and creatively, this may inhibit his or her ability to process and digest what is going on in the world. For example, an anxious child may be afraid of allowing him or herself to engage in fantasy play, for fear of the kinds of thoughts that may emerge. These thoughts, typically aggressive in nature, are healthily played out for another child, and thus the play takes on an outlet for these aggressive thoughts. The child who is anxious does not have an outlet for them and they may become âstuck.â In play therapy, this child can learn how to play out these feelings, thus giving them a healthy release. Similarly, a child who is unable to engage in symbolic play, such as a child with Aspergerâs or PDD, lacks the ability to understand social relationships and the abstract complexities that go along with such relationships. Teaching these children symbolic play and encouraging their ability to create symbols and take on roles and different perspectives may improve their social relationships.
Encouraging a childâs ability to play is one of the greatest gifts that parents can give to their child. Essentially, it is giving them a skill set to understand, decipher, process, resolve and accept the world. These are tools that will serve them well throughout their lives.
Dr. Shuli Sandler is a licensed clinical psychologist. She has a private practice in Manhattan and Teaneck, New Jersey, where she works with children, adolescents, and adults. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Chethik, M. (2000). Techniques of Child Therapy: Psychodynamic Strategies. New York: Guilford Press