Tag Archives: pretend play

Child’s Play


.Today I am writing about children’s creative play. I was inspired to do so by a unique construction hanging down the stairwell that leads to my office. It was placed there a couple of weeks ago, but I have left it there because I am so fond of it. It is – as a young observer called it – “a wad of tissue on a string”. It is actually facial tissue tied with colored yarn, but he is mostly right. This construction was created by another child, and for her I think it had the meaning of exploring my spaces, taking me over aggressively but also lovingly, as she dangled it over the top of the banister and let it sink slowly down three floors to rest on the carpet of the cellar level. In the small area at the bottom of the stairs, she then imagined having an “office” of her own, claiming the wooden ledge as her “desk”. Then to clearly establish her hegemony, she carefully wrote a sign: “Please do not take this down. Thank you.” Asking me how to spell my name, she finished off her notice with the name, “Alex Harrison”.

The magic of this construction is not in its ingredients – tissue, colored yarn, maybe a little tape – but in the imagination that turned these humble household objects into a powerful narrative. These objects cannot compare with the complicated electronics that my little patients are usually so fond of. Even the other toys in my office – dolls, blocks, vehicles, etc. – do not have quite the potential of these objects. Other children agree. All of them have noticed the tangle of colored yarn and wondered what was at the bottom, marveled at the mysterious meaning of the object and its relationship to me.

The boy who referred to it as “a wad of tissue” is very adept at games on computers and i-phones, even at his young age. In spite of this, he spent a whole session with me raising up the “wad” on its yarn pulley, untangling the tangles and considering the effect of the tangles on its smooth sailing, lowering it again, discussing with me the trajectories of each lowering and wondering what was influencing it to move further to one side or the other. Considering the difficulties this child has disentangling himself from his mother and negotiating transitions and the “ups and downs” of life, I thought he and I were doing just what we needed to be doing to make him stronger.

As he and I huddled together in our explorations, I was aware of feeling happy and engaged in my work. The feeling is a kind of playfulness, a letting go of the constraints of reality and entering – with a companion – into a magical world of rainbows (colored yarn), wads of tissue (gift wrapped presents), castles in the air (three level staircase), and forbidding dungeons (the cellar at the bottom of the stairs). Of course, the real “work” lies in facing the monsters in the dungeon together (the child’s fears and problem behavior), but in order to conquer those monsters you have to find them, and you find them by creating this magic world with a trusty traveling companion.

The world of rainbows and dungeons is obviously not exclusive to child psychotherapy. That is the magic of it – it is the possession of every child. But it has to be exercised, practiced, and that means putting away the computer, the i-phone, and the television, for long enough to enter this other space stay awhile.

The little boys in the photograph of this posting are finding this play space in the dirt of the playground. The children at the preschool found it in the pirate play and in the hunt for bears. The girl in my practice found it in her creation of the “office” at the foot of my stairs and the magic wad on pulleys that led to it. When the child is developing the capacity to create this world of pretend he/she is simultaneously building an internal capacity for flexibility, for impulse control, for empathy. That is what the pediatricians and scientists tell us from their observations and experiments (Baron-Cohen, Fonagy, Slade, Winnicott, to name a few). It is also what I know from my experience.

Sometimes it is hard to explain that to parents who understandably want a “solution” to a problem behavior – a method for shaping behavior, a behavioral strategy. Of course, I understand this. But behavioral strategies that address a discrete behavior do not always generalize; they cannot grow the brain in the elemental and natural way that pretend play can do. Now, I am in favor of anything that works, so I do support good behavioral therapies. Yet, I am always aiming in my work with children for opportunities to scaffold the growth of the important developmental capacity for imaginative play, and I am always delighted when I can awaken the child in myself to join my young patients in creating a “pretend” solution of their own.


Baron-Cohen S (1994). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theories of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fonagy P, Gergely G, Jurist EL, Target M (2002). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of Self. New York: Other Press.

Slade A (1994). Making meaning and making believe: Their role in the clinical process, in Children at Play, Edited by Slade A, Wolff DP, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 81-107.

Winnicott DW (1971). Playing and Reality, London: Routledge.


Photograph by Ginger Gregory




The Life Cycle of the Butterfly, or The Price of Freedom


Recently, I was talking to the mother of a young woman just graduating high school, about to head for college. Her mother was worried about her, wondered how she was going to manage on her own without her mother’s protection. As I listened, I reflected on an event at the preschool the week before.

The preschool has a tradition of studying the life cycle of the butterfly during the second half of the year. Each class grows a butterfly by keeping a caterpillar in a container in the classroom, feeding it, watching it spin a chrysalis and after some time, hatch into a beautiful butterfly. All the children in each classroom were very invested in this potential transformation. They watched the caterpillar disappearing inside the chrysalis with fascination and would periodically check on its progress. When the butterfly started to appear, the excitement was electric. The yellow butterflies became the classrooms’ new pets; the children frequently passed by the container to admire them.

In the 4-year old classroom, the final ceremony of releasing the butterfly was about to begin. The ceremony had a special poignancy because of the symbolic correspondence to the children preparing to leave the classroom where they had felt safe and comfortable during the school year, say goodbye to their beloved teachers, and and to some of their classmates who were moving on to a new school and not following them into the 5-year old classroom next year. The children, like the butterfly, were preparing to leave home.

The ceremony was held in the playground. The teacher brought out the container and opened it. All the children watched as the butterfly flapped its wings and sailed gracefully into the sky. Then, in front of all those eager little upturned faces, the unthinkable happened. A bird swooped down, there was a short flutter of small yellow and big black wings, and the butterfly disappeared. The dismayed teacher struggled to deal with the situation, while the children looked on in horror.

How does one help young children accept the brutality of Nature and the inevitable losses in life? The teacher’s attempts were as successful as possible, but the best solution was demonstrated by two boys in the class whom I happened upon in the sandbox later in the morning. I interrupted their busy activity to ask them what they were building. One of them looked up with a wonderful frown and grimace. “A bird trap!” he exclaimed. I thought to myself, “the magic of pretend”.

Later, I suggested to the teacher that when they are older the children may look back on this event as a “teachable moment”  and appreciate that there is no freedom without risks.