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Play Therapy

Without play, learning and evolution are impossible” — Stephen Nachmanovitch

“In play we manifest fresh, interactive ways of relating with people, animals, things, ideas, images, ourselves…to play is to free ourselves from arbitrary restrictions and expand our field of action. Our play fosters richness of response and adaptive flexibility. This is the evolutionary value of play – play makes us flexible. By reinterpreting reality and begetting novelty, we keep from becoming rigid. Play enables us to rearrange our capacities and our identity so that they can be used in unforeseen ways” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p.43).

Winicott (1971) says, “it is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (p.54).

In The Therapeutic Powers of Play, Shaefer (1993) lists the benefits of play as development of therapeutic rapport, understanding, increased self-esteem, problem-solving, emotional release, adjustment to trauma, and practice of new behaviors and insight.

More elusive to scientific documentation is the spiritual aspect of play. Fred Donaldson (1995) says that in original play we are seeking the experience of being alive. Donaldson considers children his teachers and one child in particular, named Paul, made a lasting impression on him. Paul was five years old and dying of leukemia. His parents had asked Donaldson to limit Paul’s play activities; fearing play would further shorten his life. One day Paul called a meeting of his parents and Donaldson and asked permission in engage in full-out play knowing that it could speed his impending death. His parents consented, and indeed, Paul died one month later. This experience provoked in Donaldson a question about playing and survival. When researching the roots of the word, Donaldson found that survival came from the Latin super (beyond), and vivere (to live); meaning to outlive or live beyond (Donaldson, 1995). We interpret survival as living longer. But in Paul’s story we could interpret his desire to play as a move towards survival of his spirit; living beyond the restrictions imposed upon him by his disease and the adults in his life.

Play is a creative activity. It asks us to drop the roles we take on, come into the present moment, and allow ourselves to be moved. In playing, alternative possibilities may be revealed and help to shake our habitual thoughts and behaviors. It is in this, that the therapeutic power of play lies. As we embrace the possibilities, our lives have the opportunity to unfold in ways we could never imagine.


Donaldson, F. (1993). Playing by Heart. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

Nachmanovitch, S. (1990). Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Schaefer, C. (ED). (1993). The Therapeutic Powers of Play. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing & Reality. London & New York: Tavistock Publications.



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Smithson Clinic, Inc.

275 Garrison St.
Lakewood, CO 80226
Phone: 303.762.8994


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