Is the Olympics a form of play? What does play mean and can it be therapeutic? These are the questions I ask my students as we read Neil Altman’s book entitled “Relational Child Psychotherapy.” Sutton-Smith (1995) argues that there are seven characteristics of play: progress, fate, frivolity, power, imagination, self-experience and identity. For example, the dimension of fate emphasizes the chancy and external nature of events, beyond our own individual control, evident in gambling, the belief in magic and the play of the gods. The dimension of power emphasizes the competitive, agonistic aspects of play, and the way in which play functions to establish a certain civilized power structure. The Olympics, according to a noted cultural historian Huizinga (1955) stressed the way in which play, through competitive contests, games and rituals, helps to bring order to society and to civilize a range of human impulses.
In child therapy, the therapist uses play to civilize a child. The virtue of play as a therapeutic pursuit, among other virtues, is its freedom from real consequences and thus its apparent safety as a vehicle for self-expression. Play has two faces. On the one hand there are games in society which create a world that is make-believe and yet involves some of the things that matter most to people. As with the Olympics, games sometimes give meaning to our lives. On another level, in play, we can try out new forms of behavior, new roles, new solutions and we can create new understanding and knowledge. The paradox of play, be it inside or outside a therapist’s office is that it is both an inconsequential activity (just playing) and it can be our most profound endeavor. As such, maybe, just maybe, dare I say, that sometimes, a child can grow through psychotherapy and not need psychotropic medication. At the very least, a trial of “play” may sometimes be a good idea before launching into psychopharmacology. There, I said it.