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Winnicott, D.W. (1968). Playing: Its Theoretical Status in the Clinical Situation. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 49:591-599.

(1968). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 49:591-599

Playing: Its Theoretical Status in the Clinical Situation

D. W. Winnicott


a. To get to the idea of playing it is helpful to think of the preoccupation which characterizes the playing of a young child. The content does not matter. What matters is the near-withdrawal state, akin to the concentration of older children and adults. The playing child inhabits an area that cannot be easily left, nor can it easily admit intrusions.

b. This area of playing is not inner psychic reality. It is outside the individual, but it is not the external world.

c. Into this play area the child gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality. Without hallucinating the child puts out a sample of dream potential and lives with this sample in a chosen setting of fragments from external reality.

d. In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream and invests chosen external phenomena with dream meaning and feeling.

e. There is a direct development from transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences.

f. Playing implies trust, and belongs to the potential space between (what was at first) baby and mother-figure, with the baby in a state of near-absolute dependence, and the mother figure's adaptive function taken for granted by the baby.

g. Playing involves the body:

i. because of the manipulation of objects;

ii. because certain types of intense interest are associated with certain aspects of bodily excitement.

h. Bodily excitement in erotogenic zones constantly threatens playing, and therefore threatens the child's sense of existing as a person. The instincts are the main threat to play as to the ego; in seduction some external agency exploits the child's instincts and helps to annihilate the child's sense of existing as an autonomous unit, making playing impossible (cf. Khan, 1964).

i. Playing is essentially satisfying. This is true even when it leads to a high degree of anxiety. There is a degree of anxiety that is unbearable and this destroys playing.

j. The pleasurable element in playing carries with it the implication that the instinctual arousal is not excessive; instinctual arousal beyond a certain point must lead to:

i. climax;

ii. failed climax and a sense of mental confusion and physical discomfort that only time can mend;

iii. alternative climax (as in provocation of parental or social reaction, anger, etc.).

k. Playing is inherently exciting and precarious. This characteristic derives not from instinctual arousal but from the precariousness that belongs to the interplay in the child's mind of that which is subjective (near-hallucination) and that which is objectively perceived (actual, or shared reality).

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