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Gavshon, A. (1989). Playing: Its Role in Child Analysis. J. Child Psychother., 15(1):47-62.

(1989). Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 15(1):47-62

Playing: Its Role in Child Analysis

Audrey Gavshon


A group of children between the ages of 5 and 8 years of age were asked to define the meaning of play. Most of them said it was “having fun”; some said “it's working”; one 6-year-old echoed Winnicott by saying “playing is doing” (Winnicott, 1968, p. 598).

How does this apply to playing in analysis? Is all non-verbal material (doing) playing? For small children the use of action instead of words is age-appropriate, but uncontrolled motor behaviour is difficult to harness for the analytic work and must be contained. The child's inadequate defences and undeveloped capacity for verbalization challenge the analyst to find ways of engaging the patient so that fantasy can be structured and playing used to understand, clarify, verbalize and interpret unconscious material.

For the analyst, the child's behaviour can provide meaningful observation.

“The analyst can use pieces of behaviour to extract unconscious meaning from them, for example to infer how the child deals with anxiety or with frustration. But this is quite different from the expression of a fantasy which results from an upsurge from the depths of the mind toward the surface.”

(Anna Freud, in Sandler et al, 1980, p. 127)

For example, when a child is silently playing with glue, the therapist initially cannot be sure whether the activity represents an instinctual gratification, a transference manifestation of provocation, a symbolic sticking/holding together, or a fantasy of conception.

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