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A renowned child psychiatrist explores why play, so essential to the healthy development of children, is also very important to adults, helping them clear their minds, relax, and experience creative healing. Reprint.
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Lenore Terr, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the medical school of the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of Too Scared to Cry and Unchained Memories. Dr. Terr lives in San Francisco with her husband and is the mother of two grown children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: Why Play? And How Do We Know We're Playing?
Some people know how to play. I can tell as I spot them from my garden. And some people don't; I can tell that, too. Directly across the street from my house, folks of any age from five to seventy-five hop the Presidio Wall, the stonework boundary of San Francisco's newest addition to the National Park System. Right at that place, the height of the jump is manageable. With a running start, a young person might leap it in one fluid motion the way a horse leaps a hedge. That looks lively and frolicking -- like play. Or a less athletic person might back up to it, sit, sling both legs onto the top, and then turn around and slide backward down the other side, all the while appearing totally unconcerned and unself-conscious. That look, too, conveys a sense of play.
Sometimes I see couples sitting on the wall, swinging their legs, gazing at some point on the horizon, listening to music on a small portable radio, or just chatting idly. They are playing, though it might not be easy to define their sport. Their faces and their bearing show it, though -- they're relaxed, carefree, enjoying the moment itself.
A young man vaults the wall in the company of his dog. He carries a chewed-up tennis ball and talks in a lilting cadence to the animal, who is already well beyond my sight. This boy, too, has that semblance -- not ecstatic but at peace, yesterday's drop in the stock market forgotten, tomorrow's tasks tucked well away in the future, where they belong.
A moment or two later, a smartly dressed, tall, trim man hurls himself at the Presidio, just behind two perfectly groomed and matched hounds, all of them bullets on unstoppable trajectories. He carries a switch, and every couple of seconds he barks "Heel!" or "Sit!" and again, "Sit!" On their way back, he pauses at my ironwork fence, which barely manages to contain the forty or fifty varieties of flowers that border my house. "I see you're having as much trouble controlling your plants as I have with my dogs," the man says. Yes, maybe, I smile. But my own goals have nothing at all to do with control -- I want to experience the pleasure of watching new shoots and blossoms develop, of seeing various combinations of color come and go, of observing life cycles far more accelerated than my own. I go outside to my garden in order to play. Do this man and his dogs ever go somewhere for that sort of thing? Where, I wonder, is the happiness in all of this "Sit!" "Heel!" and "Sit!"?
I think about play. I have been playing with children all of the years that I have been a psychiatrist. I loved watching the play of my own two children, David and Julia, as they grew up. In the last ten years or so, I have encouraged my adult patients to bring me the products of their play -- their poems, journals, paintings, stories, photos. Sometimes we rehash a golf game, a hike, a dance lesson, an afternoon at the beach. And we laugh, too. We joke. We make metaphors. Sometimes we toss one-liners back and forth across an imaginary net. And it helps. Play makes people scintillate. It creates a kind of mental click that frees you to begin sorting things out. The lack of play dulls a person -- and it may well be that an overall lack of play dulls a society.
I define play as "activity aimed at having fun." In his classic 1938 book on adult play, Homo Ludens ("Man the Player"), the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote that he believed the English word fun was essential to any definition of play. (He could find no equivalent word in either German or Dutch.) But though Huizinga said that play is "nonserious" at heart, to an outside observer it often looks deadly serious. It carries a tension of its own that must be resolved. It is suspenseful. And it often requires intense concentration. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychologist who has conducted fascinating experiments on pleasurably intense human concentration, defines play as "grounded in the concept of possibility." When we play, we sense no limitations. In fact, when we are playing, we are usually unaware of ourselves. Self-observation goes out the window. We forget all those past lessons of life, forget our potential foolishness, forget ourselves. We immerse ourselves in the act of play. And we become free.
Play has repeatedly appeared in my research as a behavior of great importance and interest -- not only as a clue to a child's mental state or as therapy for a troubled child, but as an activity that generates excitement and ideas within the scientific project itself. Early in my studies of what happens to traumatized people, for instance, I spotted a kind of play that no one had characterized or explained before -- a behavior that I eventually named "post-traumatic play." I discovered that the play of traumatized people spreads into our culture as jump-rope rhymes, horror novels, art, film, poetry -- some of it, strong and cleansing; some of it, the impetus for a nightmare or two. Post-traumatic play has a ripple effect with an extremely broad reach. And I recognized that when a child is inspired to play because of a terrible event, that play tends to be frightening to the child, yet at the same time irresistible. This temptation to play out a traumatic episode lasts -- often until or past the time the child is entirely grown up. I came to realize that a person's play is an opening to that person's being.
The psychotherapeutic situation can itself be seen as a game of sorts, requiring considerable humor and a sense of sport, both on the part of the patient and of the therapist. A generation ago, the English psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wrote that a lack of playfulness made a person a poor candidate for psychotherapy; a nonplaying patient might have to be taught how to play before psychotherapy could begin. Today, many psychotherapists, including myself, find that without some enjoyment in playing with situations, roles, analogues, solutions, a patient's chances of psychotherapeutic success are diminished.
Take the time-hallowed tea party, for example. It's easy to scoff at tea parties as useless relics of a mannered era that is gone forever...but a tea party exemplifies the benefits that play offers both to the individual and to society. (Though teas are a particularly feminine style of play, I have noticed a number of men over the years playing at tea in some of the grand, formal hotels.) Tea play generates moments of perfect manners, perfect peace in communal settings. Teas, in fact, bridge the gap between play and ritual. There are several pleasures in tea parties: the dressing up, the good manners, the delicious and dainty food, the chance to sit down to good conversation.
I learned how helpful teas could be from a three-year-old girl named Janie, a veteran sufferer of parental sexual and physical abuse. Medical examinations had revealed human bite marks
all over her body, and when she was four, surgeons would find old scars in her urinary and genital regions. When she was just a year old, Janie had been a horrified witness to her two-week-old sister Sandra's murder. Sandra was shaken and bitten to death by one and possibly two adults. Janie's father was eventually arrested and convicted of murder in the second degree, and the authorities placed Janie in excellent foster care. She came to see me a couple of years later -- after her biological mother (who at the very least had looked the other way while these horrors were going on) had gone to court to try to get Janie back. After a period of evaluation, I wrote to the court explaining why Janie could not return to her mother and emotionally survive. The court went along with my recommendation, and on her first therapy visit, the little girl suggested that we get out my nested tables and make tea.
After that, Janie and I took our imaginary tea once a mo
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