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Children's Play


Children’s play is one of the most natural-social phenomena in the world. Watching children tumble and roll in free play is like watching the movement of water cascading down a waterfall. Movement play is essential for every child’s sensory-motor development, cognition and mental wellbeing. Child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott explored how play in movement is crucial for a child’s developing sense of self and symbol development. Play provides bridging processes between a child’s development rooted in neurophysiological perception and the external environment.

In the present context of the Corona pandemic play is essential for helping children develop resilience.

About play, Sigmund Freud – the founder of psychoanalysis – stated: “The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.” [Freud, S. (1908). “Creative writers and day-dreaming.” S. E., 9, London: Hogarth, p. 144.] The more difficult the external reality, the more important play becomes. The reality of the present situation: families confined to restricted spaces, long distance computer learning, intensified social interaction, including at times verbal and physical abuse – makes play an essential resource for dealing with problems and creating new possibilities.

Because child’s play appears to be natural does not mean that one should take it for granted. Physical, perceptual and affective restrictions will all impair a child’s capacity for play. Difficulties in playing may point towards the presence of a neurodevelopmental disability, such as autism. Indeed, the intrinsic association between autism and movement informs the SomaticWell therapeutic approach for autism, and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. Play never occurs in a vacuum, but is always social, including when a child is involved in individual fantasy play. Play as social interaction requires a partner in play. Unfortunately, many adults have lost their childlike spontaneity and the capability of being swept up in fantasy play. For parents, who especially in the first few years of their children’s lives have key roles in mediating their children’s learning, this ability to play is especially crucial.

Winnicott is celebrated for having posited key psychoanalytic concepts relating to play, for example, the “transitional object,” and “potential space.” These concepts capture key aspects of the paradoxical co-existence of both reality and imagination in the human psyche – that of adults as well as children. In this sense, play is akin to dreaming. In “Playing and Reality,” Winnicott noted that, “In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream and invests chosen external phenomena with dream meaning and feeling.” [Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. New York: Basic Books; p.51.] Play and dreams are so close to each other because they reflect biological life processes, without conscious symbolic meaning making.

Winnicott is also notable for having moved psychoanalytic conceptualizing of symbolic play closer to the reality of naturalistic playing. In other words, teaching therapists to become more playful themselves, to give of their whole beings in the process of play, to become closer to the life-worlds of the children they are treating therapeutically.

This process of turning play into, well play, is therefore both extremely simple and also quite radical. The SomaticWell approach incorporates this radical aspect of play into its therapeutic modalities with children. Focusing on the perceptual processes of play provides huge potential for transformation, without the complexity of psychoanalytic analyses.

A British based dance-movement company called JABADAO has been teaching movement play since 1985. JABADAO focuses its play-movement training on young children, children with disabilities, and senior citizens. JABADAO has developed a training practice for working with young children called Developmental Movement Play, which includes 5 core components: floor play, push-pull play, spin-tip-swing-upside down play, halfway play, and upright play. JABADAO sessions also provide tips for parents in setting up a play floor-space. JABADAO is important for SomaticWell’s work with children, because of the seamless manner it integrates principles from neurophysiological development into movement play.

A paragraph from an early JABADAO brochure captures the spirit of its program:

“JABADAO is seeking new roles for dance in our society. Not dance of the technical variety, but dance that flows from us, as words do in a good conversation, if only we feel comfortable enough to let it happen.

This dancing experience is about the feeling side of our nature; the intuitive, the empathetic, the universal. It arises from sources other than the purely personal, offering the possibility of making connections beyond the ordinary. Like waking dreams, it offers the potential for the conscious, rational mind to stand aside, for once, and to witness the flow of images, pictures and stories that can enhance and extend our understanding of ourselves.”

Readers of this blog can follow this link to view images of JABADAO’s history (https://www.jabadao.org/about-jabadao-profile). It is fascinating to note the transformation of JABADAO during its 35-year history in light of rapid technological changes; while its core humanistic values remain unchanged. During the present Corona pandemic JABADAO is promoting online trainings with the meme “together-apart.” SomaticWell is proud to be partnering up with JABADAO to promote online trainings inviting participation from parents and professionals in Israel and internationally.


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