Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Olympics and the Wonders of Play

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 30, 2012

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.

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4 Responses to “The Olympics and the Wonders of Play”

  1. Jon said

    Play, games and toys – all wonderful things to consider.

    In science and engineering, much progress and understanding can be achieved with toy problems. A toy problem is a simple example that is illustrative of deeper results. Simplifying problems to a few important principles and situations allows for a good “bottoms up” accretion of knowledge to eventually become wisdom.

    As you have pointed out, Shirah, play is also valuable in gaining understand. Some of the same reasons that toy problems are important can be understood in play. Indeed, play can be done with toys. Also, what is the true first step in “The Scientific Method?” Unlike what is sadly taught in most elementary school, the real answer is “play.” One must play around, perhaps with toys, before one can get a sense of the lay of the land. Only after one has played, can one begin to “frame a hypothesis.”

    Now, take play and organize it. What do we get? Games! And yes, the Olympic Games (both ancient and modern) are a type of play. Can we gain understanding from it? Absolutely. Can such games give meaning to our lives? Definitely. That which we care about helps to create a sense of meaning of what we are and have become.

    Can play be a useful tool in psychotherapy? Shirah, as you have shown many a time in this blog, yes. Should a therapist “play” with a patent before launching into psychopharmacology? Without question.

    • Thanks, Jon. I appreciate you reminding me and my readers about how science is really “play”. Restoring play into a child’s world helps them develop socially, emotionally and cognitively. On the one hand, this is obvious, but on the other hand, the pressures of today’s world make many children too busy for “play”. This is tragic. Thanks Again.

  2. Shelly said

    The pressures of today’s world make most adults forget that play is as important to life as business and familial obligations. In truth, I still feel guilty when I play as it seems to me to be wasted time or nonproductive. It is interesting how you say that the Olympics help bring order to society and to civilize a range of human impulses. Today’s Olympics are definitely religiously charged, what with certain countries refusing to fight (judo) against another or a certain regional block (Arab) preventing a moment of silence when another country’s delegates were massacred. Why do we watch the Olympics? We cheer on our countrymen, we idolize perfection, and of course, there is that issue of play that you mentioned. To me, though, the Olympics have taught me one thing: sports are not above regional conflicts. Play, on the other hand, has taught me another: it has it’s place and I need to learn from my children how to do more of it.

    • Interesting, Shelly. I think that children are a wonderful way to reconnect with play. I salute your efforts to return to your playful side and to not see inconsequential activities as “nonproductive,” but rather see these activities as ways in which you are building a deeper internal world. Thanks Again.

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