If you have ever observed a child for more than five minutes, you will inevitably see him/her playing. Play is the central aspect of childhood – across gender, culture, and age. This article will attempt to give insight into why children play and what function it serves, both in general and in therapeutic settings.
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, 1) 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, “Rivka,” who was an active participant in her class. It was Rivka’s 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 “beats up” or “kills” those he does not like or those who don’t 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 mother’s mannerisms to a tee. She and her mother became “Mommies” together. At other times, Sarah regresses into the state of a “baby.” She will say “gaga” and “baba” 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. Sarah’s 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.