The Healing Power of Play

One afternoon Antek woke up from his nap, had something to eat and went to play in his room. I peeked in to see what was going on, and I noticed he kept throwing his teddy on the floor, then picking it up and throwing it again. He doesn’t usually throw toys, so it had me wonder. I moved closer and was listening. ‘You fell down. It hurt’ he said picking the teddy from the floor. ‘Do you want a hug?’ A little break and the cycle went on again. And again, and again. Until he had enough and moved on to play with his cars. Later in the evening, my husband told me Antek had fallen down on the playground and cried for quite a long time – nothing major happened, but clearly it had upset him quite a lot.

It is often difficult for children to express what they feel. It is probably often difficult for adults, as well. But there is a lot going on emotionally we are working through all the time, and we need tools to deal with it. For children, one of these tools can be FREE PLAY. Free, that is self-initiated, self-led and uninterrupted (as intended by Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber). Of course going through big emotions more often than not requires our (adults’) help. Again, it does not mean to leave the children alone at all times, and let them figure out the world without our guidance – it simply means to be sensitive to when and how to allow play to be a healing tool without jumping right in with our assumptions and expectations.

Given time and space, children, scratch that – people, who are nurtured and whose needs are met, can on a lot of occasions work through their own problems in their own play. Or in their own way. We talk, if we can. We doodle on a piece of paper for hours. We kick things. We scream. We run, or go outside. We lie in the grass, go hug trees, go for a swim. Kids also work through their emotions in a way which helps them cope and understand.

If nobody steps in to stop or ‘help’ in the process, the play itself can sometimes become a self-organized therapeutic tool. There were definitely some emotions with Antek falling down that day. He got hurt. He didn’t like it. He was surprised how much his knee hurt. Had anyone stepped in to stop the throwing, or to ask what happened, the process of going through this could have been stopped.

We have both seen it happen with our children, and time and time again it is incredible to see how capable they are in working through their feelings, fears and doubts. How does the healing power of play work, when we look at FREE PLAY as a tool for dealing with emotions? Here are two things we have noticed:

Understanding and re-living reality

In one of the videos from the Pikler home, there is a scene with one little boy who keeps hiding his toys up really high, where he can barely reach them. He then walks away, looks at the shelf, and comes back to try and reach for the toys. He does that several times, always making sure he cannot see them, and then always returning to make sure they are there.

This little boy, we were told, had not been there for too long. It was still the time when Pikler home was an orphanage. His parents, who could not care for him at the time, came to visit him every week for a little while. After they’d left, he immediately went to play his ‘game’ of hide-and-seek.

Why is this interesting? Perhaps because of the amazing connection this little boy was making between his parents disappearing every week, to appear in the next. Perhaps this game helped him to understand reality, and reassured him that things that go out of sight can be brought back. Perhaps he was testing the permanence of objects, which had affected his life to such a great extent – his parents were constantly in and out of his sight, after all.

Practicing to deal with fear

We have already talked about Antek’s fear of planes, and how he managed to combat it by practicing getting into and out of the plane, sitting down, preparing his bag ( Going over some things children are afraid of, or have doubts about, often appears in play as a way of making them familiar.

A lot of our fears are born out of a fear of the unknown. If we know what is coming, we can prepare – which is why talking to our babies (even very small) through the events of daily life helps so much in the long run – it makes the world a little more predictable, and through that, less scary.

In their play we often see children doing something over and over, repeating certain actions – sometimes we can make a clear connection to a real-life event (like getting on a plane, or going to the doctor), and sometimes it is too abstract for us to see. But if we manage to allow our babies to develop the habit of free play, they will also use it to deal with their fear of the unknown – by finding their own ways of making it known and familiar.

Have you noticed your child dealing with emotions, fears, or reliving past events in their play? We love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More reading:

Janet Lansbury talks about ways to encourage free play as a tool for self-therapy here.




6 thoughts on “The Healing Power of Play

  1. I really believe parents and those caring for young children misunderstand free play and child initiated play….children need adults who understand the importance of play, and provide time and resources for this to happen without interupting the process by offering suggestions, butting in with talk and stopping it if it becomes maybe repetitive or chaotic.

    • Good point, Marie. It is interesting how the two can easily become confused. I’m not sure if we are making it clear in this post (though see our other posts on free play, and any comments you have will be valuable). I have found this to be one of the most difficult things to learn over the past few years – not to suggest, guess or offer, just follow or simply observe. Amazing once it happens (free play), and I wholeheartedly agree that children need adults who ‘provide time and resources’, as you say. Thanks for more food for thought!

  2. This is a really timely post. Just earlier today (it’s almost midnight here in Singapore), I watched as my 17mo lifted her lightweight doll stroller up and down a wooden platform at home. She was totally absorbed at it and kept going up and down till she was sweating. At first I couldn’t understand why she was suddenly doing that as she was contented to just push it around in the past. Then I remembered that she had seen her father carry her own stroller up a long flight of steps just the day before. It’s not the first time that he’d done that but I think she’s just more conscious of her environment now. So today she didn’t want to do anything much apart from carrying her little stroller up and down the platform and I was happy to be there to witness it. I took photos and a video and sent it to my husband at work, telling him that his feat up the steps the day before did not go unnoticed. I’m just delighted how my little girl gets to understand and learn about her environment through free play.

    • Dear Aida!

      Thank you for sharing your story. It still amazes me how children are constantly on a quest to make sense of everything they see, hear, notice. And how incredibly patient they are in trying to do things over and over until they feel they are satisfied. I am sure your husband was very happy to see his little girl doing that -how lovely of you to have recorded it for him!

      Thanks again for sharing this.


  3. I’m reminded of my children having a 5 year old friend whose mother died of cancer. They discussed it with him freely and he repeated what he’d been told. “She’s in heaven now. I can’t see her.” They were curious and for up to a year their play would involve “dead parents.” As in Question: “Do you want to play “little brother goes to the fair?” Answer: “Okay, dead parents?” These were 5 and 6 year olds! They would act out scenarios where the children had a parent who had died. It seemed unreleneting but of course it was huge and had to be reckoned with.

  4. Pingback: Unexpected Toy Find! | Janet Lansbury

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