• Allison Priestman

THERAPY AND PLAY

The idea of play may fill you with delight or horror or a complex mix of both. It seems to me that play is fundamental to our development as children, and also to our healing and therapeutic process.  The interaction between therapist and client is a way of exploring and creating reality. Through play we try on and experiment with different aspects and parts of ourselves – through play the paradox that therapy is both real and pretend can be held.


One definition of trauma is that it compromises our capacity to play. Similarly to the impossible analytic task of free association – if we could freely associate we would not need analysis, so if we could play freely, it could be argued that we no longer need to be in therapy. As both a goal and a means to get there, being playful in the therapy room has immense value. It offers the potential for both therapist and client to be lighter with difficult experiences.


I’m someone for whom play can come very naturally, and it is perhaps my first language. The word play for me holds the sense of ambiguity – of moving towards and away, between and within, of toying, of flexibility, spontaneity. It allows curiosity, excitement, and experimentation.

One of the central ways that I use play is to support and explore my contact with others. I also find it to be deeply personally nourishing – I can be more in touch with my senses, my sensual, visceral experience of my own body and physicality. I can feel more ease, freedom and pleasure in the moment. My aim is to be in wild mind (a concept from Embodied-Relational Therapy) when working with clients – listening lightly to the totality of my experience in each moment. The best way for me to be in wild mind is to relax into a playful focused way of being.


Approaching therapy as play does me good as a therapist – I can be lighter with the responsibility and demands of my role. I can be more relaxed in myself. I’m also aware that play can only really occur when we feel safe and secure. As such it could be felt as demanding for client and therapist. Many people have traumatic experiences around play, and perhaps much more complex relationship with it. Play offers the possibility of fun and delight, but also of humiliation and shaming.


I’ve been working for just over 15 years with clients, and the longer I work the easier it has become for me. I think one of the major developments is that I’m more available for my clients, both emotionally and physically. I’m able to show up – to show more of myself without as much compromise. I’m able to let clients shape me and not feel misshapen. I think I am able to offer more intimacy these days. This freedom comes partly from the permission to play. I find myself, dropping into a slightly altered state, where what is real and what is imaginary can sit beside each other without having to be defined and delineated. I’m able to hold paradox more easily, for example; that the person I’m working with seems to be at the same time: a baby, a young boy and a fully grown man, and these contradictions and complexities can be present.


My work has become more physical in the last few years. The story for many body psychotherapists can be that the longer they work the less body-based work they do. The reverse seems to be true for me. I find myself using more touch and physical play.


There are many forms and types of play, each of which may be valuable for different clients at different times. Some of the ways I have found useful when working with clients:

-Playing with words to create a shared language and understanding of the unique process that the client and I are in. 

-Teasing play which can be invaluable to point out challenging things to clients

-Using play to explore and test out complex non-verbal experiences such as boundaries and safety

-Using physical play, such as pillow fights, to safely contact and express rage



The process of growth and change that as therapists we are aiming to support in our clients is usually non-rational, non-linear, seemingly chaotic, wild – it could be said to be playful. If the processes that govern this earth and the universe are essentially chaotic, non-linear and wild it could also be said that the universe is filled with and maintained by play.


Originally written Sept 2016

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