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Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Play

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As a pediatrician and student of Melanie Klein, Winnicott found play to be an important part of the child's development process.

Fort! Da!

In Freud's Fort! Da! game ('Gone! Here!'), the 15 month child throws a cotton reel from its cot and pulls it back into sight.

This may well symbolize the mother, disappearing and reappearing. The child is reassuring itself by showing that something that disappears can be brought back at will.

For Klein, the reel is a symbolization of an internal object that is the mother who has, in phantasy, been harmed by the child which leads to her absence and is an anxiety of the  depressive position. The child's actions involve projective identification towards the reel-mother.

For Winnicott, the reel acts as a transition object, representing the mother and aiding the transition to independence.

Spatula game

In the early spatula game that Winnicott observed, a baby picks up a tongue depressor, a spatula, from the table and interacts with it, perhaps waving it about. At some point, the baby holds the spatula quietly, unmoving, pausing. Then suddenly, the spatula become a 'something', perhaps an airplane, moved up and down by the child with the delight of discovery. This 'moment of hesitation' in which the baby was given both the presence and the space to be in its quiet inner world, uninterrupted, is critical for Winnicott.

It is important to give the child time to decide, even on small things. If a child is hurried or directed in its early reaching to objects then it does not have time to invest meaning in the object, remaining an alien object from the adult world. Creativity becomes passive compliance or thought of as fraud and envied.

Squiggle game

In the later squiggle game (as used by Winnicott) the therapist makes a squiggle and asks the child to turn it into something. This encourages the creation of meaning. The child is then invited to make a squiggle in return, which keeps the game going and gives the therapist more material.

Play therapy

In Klein's play therapy (or the Psychoanalytic Play Technique), the child is seen by the therapist under consistent conditions (same time, place, environment, toys, etc.).  In a scientific manner, by keeping variable to a minimum, a truer assessment is possible. New, even innocuous-seeming items can be perceived as a threat and change the child's manner.

In the diagnostic interview the analyst makes contact with the projected aspects of the child's inner world of object relations through an initial play contact.

The analyst takes great care in understanding projection and introjection, and other aspects of Object Relations Theory as an understanding of the child's inner world is sought. Counter-transference is also monitored with care. It is critical that the child feels safe.

As therapeutic healing, it can be used with adults also. Play is seen as a 'safe' place where phantasy and fantasy may be used, hence allowing the therapist to directly interact with the inner world of the client.

Some play therapy approaches are more directive than others, but there is a general theme of letting the child lead and any interaction is done very carefully.


Play is often viewed as irrelevant recreation by adults, but for children it is a multi-purpose vehicle for learning and adapting to the real world.

In early play, children experience and experiment with objects. Later on, they copy and rehearse life scenarios in order to understand and introject social codes.

Play therapy has been developed further, including by such as Carl Rogers.

See also

Winnicott, The Transition Object, Melanie Klein, Projection and Introjection, Phantasy vs. fantasy, Object Relations Theory


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