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Play and the Child's Sense of Self

The loss of free play means a loss of creativity.

The memories of my childhood that I cherish most are of the Huck Finnish days of summer when school was finally out. One time, I made a rough fishing rod out of a bamboo pole and some twine. There was something deeply satisfying about the process of creating the makeshift rod, attaching the hook and sinker, raiding our refrigerator for something to use as bait, and putting the line into the water. Then I fished for hours in the creek near our house, watching the sun play on the water and the tadpoles dart around in shallow green poolsThat day I caught a couple of fish, but the fish themselves didn't matter much. It was the process of creating that meant everything to me.

In play, the child creates a world into which she puts her thoughts, her imaginings and her feelings. The world she creates in free form is literally made out of herself, spun out of her own subjectivity. This created world, in turn, gives the child a sense of her self as an active, creative being. The child is the ruler of her tiny kingdom, and in it she feels deliciously free and alive.

When a child is deprived of the opportunity for free creative play, the psychological consequences can be grave. The eminent psychologist Alice Miller says that when a parent tells a child to do something sensible and goal-oriented instead of aimlessly playing, the child's world is overthrown. The child obeys because she wants to please her parent. But the child feels hurt, and withdraws her feelings into herself where they remain buried.

If this parental banishment occurs repeatedly, as it does with narcissistic parents who use the child to satisfy their own conscious or unconscious wishes, the child becomes depressed. Instead of having a sense of herself as a free and creative subjectivity, the child feels like an object--the object of her parents wishes. No longer the author of her own story, the child feels like she is playing a role in her parents' drama. As Miller puts it in her classic book The Drama of the Gifted Child, the child puts away her real feelings and takes on a "false self."

Today, childhood depression is on the rise in America. More than a million children have been diagnosed with depression and are treated with dangerous psychiatric medications. Alongside this rise in children's depression is the alarming decrease of free unstructured play. More and more, children are tiger parented into academic achievement. This begins even in the pre-school years when the race is on to enroll one's child in the best college preparatory nursery school.

Older children are over-scheduled with after school enrichment classes, music lessons and sports-all of which will look good on a college application later on. "How long has junior been playing the violin," asks the application, for colleges are looking for "stick-to-it-iveness." Children's limited play time is so often taken up with video and computer games--games that have been invented by adults. There is some social interaction on these games, as children connect with their friends on the screen, but video games do not provide a child with a truly creative experience. For one thing, there is always the competition, the quest for victory.

The lack of opportunity for unstructured creative play is a tragic loss for our country's children and may even be contributing to the astonishingly rapid rise of childhood depression. The achievement-oriented, over-scheduled, video game-intoxicated child misses out on the opportunity to create his own imaginary world. The absence of creative play and the growing emphasis on achievement narrowly defined is stressful to our children, because it frustrates and denies their need to build a sense of self through play.

There are also grave consequences for our society as well, for the loss of free play means a loss of creativity. Psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott says in his classic work Playing and Reality that the ability to play, to engage in the creative process is, more than anything else, what makes life worth living. Without it, a person becomes depressed. And, according to Winnicott, what allows an adult to engage in this meaningful process of creativity is the childhood experience of creative play, free from the rules and restraints of the adult world.

Copyright 2011 Marilyn Wedge