It’s More than Simply Child’s Play

‘Play’ as a therapeutic tool with everyday implications.

Photo by Adobe Stock/theartofphoto.

Few would argue with the German philosopher Karl Groos, who suggested in his work The Play of Animals that we don’t stop playing because we grow old, but rather we grow old because we stop playing. Yet precious few adults pencil in "playtime" on their to-do lists. It simply doesn’t chime with the modern, materialistic, time–stretched lifestyle; there is no money in play. And thus our playful spirit atrophies, and we age and wither accordingly.

My first epiphany about play as a counselling tool was in 1999, when I worked for a children’s charity in Lebanon. A boy shouted at me, using aggressive language reminiscent of an unruly adult, and his posture hinted at violence. I stood stock still, wondering what to do. Then I walked to the desk and got him a ballpoint pen and some paper. Of his own volition he drew spiral after spiral, pressing down on the paper with enormous tension. After a few minutes he stopped, and I took this as a cue to escort him out of the room to join his friends.

The interaction nevertheless had a faintly adult quality, of equals communicating. That perception stayed with me as I went on to train in child-centred education, as a Waldorf early years teacher. I later trained as a therapeutic play practitioner and then the more adult holistic counsellor, and I am currently training as a transpersonal arts counsellor.

Through my work experience I have developed a profound faith in the power of play for adults. This stems from a less dramatic epiphany when I was contemplating some clients, a friend and a colleague: a downbeat, resentful young man, a grieving woman, an anxious businessman, a young artist struggling with her confidence, and a middle-aged manager striving toward authentic leadership. What struck me was this: people carrying sadness and worry long-term never play. It’s as simple as that. Contrastingly, people living into a hopeful prognosis always had an element of play in their lives. Did it not follow that play in itself had the potential to move people from the miserable camp into the resilient camp?

Of course, therapists and counsellors have been cajoling their clients to play and enjoy life since time out of mind, but what about bringing play into the counselling room? I decided to do it, and have never looked back.

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