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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 child’s 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)

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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 “stuck.” 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 Asperger’s 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 child’s 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.

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1 Chethik, M. (2000). Techniques of Child Therapy: Psychodynamic Strategies. New York: Guilford Press

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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 shulisandlerpsyd@gmail.com.
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