What is play therapy? In a recent blog (Picture, Picture on the Wall) I spoke about art and creativity as an articulation of something of the unconscious mind, where something could not quite be put in to words, and so it took another form in order to be expressed.

Similarly, when it comes to children and play something akin to this is taking place. Children express themselves and communicate through play. Playing or engaging in ‘make believe’ allows children to express themselves, their emotions and their thoughts freely in a way that is not available to them through their speech. In their play world, their fantasies are being fulfilled; they are the ones in control, which often for a child is an experience which is not a regular occurrence in their daily ‘reality’. In a similar way that adult’s may unknowingly reveal the inner intricacies of their unconscious through their creative expressions, the child’s play allows them the opportunity to direct their unconscious energy and so provide mental relief. Play therapy takes the same format, with the addition of a therapist or analyst supporting the environment and waiting for the unconscious cues of the child to be revealed.

Consider an 8-year-old girl who has been witness to the break up of her family unit, with her father leaving when she was very small. She is withdrawing in school and her teachers notice she is zoning out, with an inability to concentrate which has resulted in her isolating herself.  During a session, she spends quite some time putting together and building an elaborate house, placing all the family members – Mom, Dad, Baby, Brother and Granny within the rooms of this house. It is a very peaceful scene to observe. Then, suddenly a ‘big storm’ comes along and thunder and lightning hit the house and it all comes crashing down, leaving the family members thrown from the house with some landing far away, some injured and some dead. I suddenly feel shock for this family and the sudden tearing down of their home/union.

In this transference, I am experiencing the helplessness that this girl is experiencing every day. In her play, she is acting out the painful break up of her family. The impact of the thunder storm that has torn everyone apart in the most horrifying way possible is a likely representative of the isolation this girl feels, engages with and expresses during her time at school. Feelings and thoughts too overwhelming for her to translate in to words become directed in to her play where she can express all of that for which she cannot find language.

Play therapy essentially creates a space to receive what the communications of the child, either directly to the analyst through his/her speech or indirectly via play consisting of artwork, games, make believe, etc. Initially, as per an adult session, the analyst will simply listen and observe; there is no specific meaning attached to this speech at this point. Instead, he/she will allow the child to find their unique way of expressing the components of their unconscious mind through their play. In doing so the child reveals that which is representative of the problem he/she is faced with. What ensures that this work unfolds in such a way that this is the outcome, the psychoanalyst is careful not to bring into play his/her own mental ideals/views/perceptions; instead observing the child’s communications and noting how they represent him/her as a ‘subject’. At the right moment, the psychoanalyst will make punctuations, sometimes intentionally and other times not. This essentially paves the way for the child to begin to make sense of the meaning that his/her feelings, or symptom, holds. When this realisation is learned through this unique process, the outcome results such that this no longer is needed by the child; it serves no purpose and is discarded.  This is where the painful component to the symptom or feeling loosens for the child.

Through play therapy then, the psychoanalyst is there to support the environment however it is the child who essentially provides both the clues about the meaning that his suffering contains. If we provide the child with the correct space, he/she eventually will find his/her own solution.

Nadia Paruk