Healing with play

Dr. Shakila Naidu

Play therapy or play counselling should be as much a part of the school as are its other activities. While a lot of schools offer counselling to their students, recent research has proved the significance of using play therapy as well in schools. We have now accepted that children learn in different ways and device ways to teach them using play, audio-visuals, and outdoor activities. It is time that we also understood that all children may not respond to a talk only counselling session. This is why play therapy is important in schools.

“Deep meaning lies often in childish play”.Johann Friedrich von Schille

The constraints of modern day living have substantially decreased opportunities that children have for exploring, interacting, and playing on their own. The benefits of unstructured play for children are far greater than what is commonly understood. Apart from fostering overall development and learning, play reduces stress, encourages creativity, imagination, and spontaneity while nurturing physical, cognitive, social, and emotional competencies.

‘PLAY‘ an edited book by Shubhada Maitra and Shekhar Seshadri is an excellent compilation of literature and research on play-based innovations in the Indian context. It brings together theory, practice methods and interventions in child development, psycho-social and mental health contexts.

With 15 chapters, this book broadly divides into two key sections: theoretical concepts and intervention strategies. The contributors, who are academicians and practitioners, give rich insights into breaking through, healing, and recovery in children who have experienced trauma, violence, death and loss, socio-economic deprivation and sexual abuse in their young lives.

The authors, coming from diverse disciplines such as psychology, social work, psychiatry, law and art, create a rich mosaic of ideas and perspectives to cover the entire spectrum of play techniques including art forms such as theatre, dance, music, puppetry, and storytelling.

The complexity and lack of consensus in operationally defining play leads to some ambiguity in what constitutes the scope of play. With its myriad dimensions, play has been differently categorized as directive/non-directive, activities organized as unstructured play, creative play or cultural play and interventions grouped as free play/educational play, or therapeutic play. The important distinction that has been made however, is that ‘play has to be freely chosen’ to qualify as play.

The chapter on unstructured play and mental health by Lata Shenava is by far the best exposition on the significance of free play. In the current urban scene, children are coerced into structured activities for learning, in the name of play. The threats to play are many; shrinking outdoor spaces, increased concerns about child safety and time constraints in dual career families.

The world of universal and imaginative play versus the world of the electronic child where exploration, free spiritedness, creativity and choice-making are replaced by violence, fear, boredom, over-stimulation and negative emotions has been clearly delineated. Free, spontaneous play has been replaced by electronic technology, Internet, social networking and mass media with gadgets such as TV, computers, mobiles, and video games. Shenava opines that decreased play and lack of contact with nature leads to the narrowing of the senses, physiologically and psychologically, affecting the richness of human experience.

The article on using ‘Storystems as an Assessment tool’ by Nitya Poornima, Kayastha and Hirisave is another particularly useful commentary on using play for diagnostic purposes. Sheila Ramaswamy’s synthesis on ‘Child psycho-social health interventions in complex emergencies’ focuses on training teachers and community volunteers in play and creative interventions.

play-book Play therapy techniques such as creative visualizations, art, fantasy, game play, and sensory motor techniques have been described by Sugnyani Devi in ‘Play Therapy: Theory and Practise’. Two techniques ‘Balloons of anger’ and’ Beat the clock’ (Horn, Kaduson, and Schafer,1997) for anger management and impulse control in ADHD students seemed of special interest.

The highlight of the book is the sub-section on ‘Play therapy intervention in contexts of trauma and sexuality’. Sheila Ramaswamy discusses key issues in helping children conceptualize death and ambiguous loss while outlining core processes and principles of nondirective play therapy.

Sangeeta Saksena and Shoiba Saldanha have addressed ‘Sexuality, life skills and personal safety issues using play techniques’ in students from grades one to ten in schools across India for sensitization and prevention of sexual abuse.

The book is written in an easy reading style without too much jargon. Complex concepts and fundamental psychological perspectives in play are enunciated clearly and lucidly. This book is a must read for its comprehensive overview of current play research as well as innovative and experiential intervention strategies in the Indian context.

The medley of themes and literary styles in different chapters gives it a chequered and disconnected feel but the information on theories of play development, review of literature and research in early chapters is extensive.

‘Play’ is not intended as a guidebook for play therapy. Nevertheless, it provides considerable depth and wealth of information to professionals intending to use play based techniques in children. The case formulations and practise oriented insights shared on play therapy will serve as a valuable resource to educators and practitioners working with children across academic, community, and mental health settings.

However, it seems there is still a dearth of meaningful work in the use of play techniques as clinical and assessment tools with emotionally disturbed, traumatized and behaviour disordered populations. Using play therapy as a medium of psycho-social preventive work with vulnerable and socio-economically disadvantaged children also holds a great deal of promise.

Childhood has to be saved from a not too distant future where children will have no concept or comprehension of the value in free spontaneous play. The bane of urban lives are consumerist lifestyles and reduced social and family supports. Play is commonly misinterpreted as leisure and play of entertainment activities such as movies, commercial sports, eating out, shopping or the club culture into which children are initiated early (Elkind 1988). Finally, the compensation culture (Gill 2005) where caregivers believe that provision of material things compensate for lack of time and emotional investment in their children are some disturbing trends which will soon strike the final death blow to a carefree childhood. A paradigm shift in awareness for caregivers, educators, and administrators about the ‘resurgence of play as a central life activity’ rather than academics in pre-adolescent children is imperative today.

“You can’t stop the future,
You can’t rewind the past,
The only way to learn the secret
…is to press play.”
– Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

The reviewer is a consultant clinical psychologist in Hyderabad. She can be reached at shakilan@gmail.com.