To Play or Not to Play
By Jasmine Narayan, Psy.D.
Since I began working with children, I have realized how important playing is to a child’s social and emotional development. This is the age of communication and we have become so accustomed to talking, discussing and analyzing. The children I work with have taught me that sometimes talking is overrated. It’s better to just “be.” Through play, children are free to be themselves, to express their deepest wishes, and most of all to have some sense of control. One little boy, named Billy, learned to deal with some very difficult emotions and gain a sense of freedom through his play.
I stood in the doorway of the classroom and looked for the fair-haired boy. He caught my eyes from across the room and asked with an expectant look on his face “is it my turn?” I smiled and nodded. He ran over excitedly, dropping the toys in his hand and practically mowing over his classmates who stood in the way. We walked together to my office. Upon entering the room, Billy waited as I set the clock and then proceeded to take the polka-dotted box full of animal puppets off of the bookshelf. He balanced the box on his head as he hobbled over to the carpet. “I’m strong,” he told me as if sensing my desire to reach out and help him. He dumped the boxful of animals onto the carpet and searched for his favorite one. He dug through the pile of plush, grabbed a shabby brown dog from the bottom and paused to examine the shiny green sticker on the dog’s paw. Billy put that sticker on the dog in a previous session. He then gestured for me to pick one for myself. Following his lead, I too picked the same animal as last time, a light brown golden retriever puppet.
The stage was set. The characters cast. We both knew our parts because the play had been nearly the same for the past few weeks. Despite his initial excitement, Billy sat frozen and stared at the animals. The lines of uncertainty on his face could be read like sentences in a book. As he collected himself, he began to slowly act out his inner world. Themes of anger, fear and rejection began to unfold before my eyes. The animals joined together to form a club and purposefully excluded a large bird from the play. The bird, bright pink with lanky yellow legs, felt great rage. He began to break into the club, pulling members out and throwing them violently across the room. All the animals ran to hide. All the animals cowered in fear, all the animals, but two. The shabby brown dog stepped up to help the other animals, aided by the golden retriever. Together the two unlikely heroes recovered the hurt animals and built a shelter to protect them, one that could not be penetrated by the angry bird. Toward the end of the session, I could sense that Billy was unable to resolve this inner conflict. He was both the hero and the bully. He did not know how to reconcile the two. Through the golden retriever puppet, I was able to make suggestions that would help the bird make amends with his friends. The bird listened and began to apologize to other animals and say, “I was just so angry because you wouldn’t let me play.”
Billy was an angry and scared little boy. He acted out with aggression in the real world because he felt so little control in his own. During sessions he was learning to master difficult feelings and express them in more adaptive ways. Billy, just like other children, was communicating and integrating his experiences through his dramatic play. I feel lucky that he invited me to participate in his world and to have an impact. I am mindful that this July it is easy to get bogged down by family obligations and activity packed schedules. Let’s take a page from a child’s book and set aside some time to play!
Create Outcomes is an organization devoted to supporting individuals in growing toward their highest potential. We offer individual therapy, couples therapy, group therapy, therapy for children, teen therapy and retreats. Our therapists integrate psychodynamic theory, cognitive behavioral approaches, and their own unique perspective and training to provide the most clinically relevant care to each individual. We are in-network with Humana insurance and offer in-person therapy in Denver, Colorado, New York, NY and Long Island, NY and provide teletherapy for residents of Florida.