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Ostow, M. (1987). Play and Reality. Psychoanal. St. Child, 42:193-203.

(1987). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 42:193-203

Play and Reality

Mortimer Ostow, M.D.


By playing, the child and adult seek surcease from the stress of living in reality and the frustration of basic needs, conscious and unconscious. Play involves rejection of realistic constraints and seeking relative freedom from restraint and from consequence.

The game that is played is usually secondarily endowed with realistic consequences; the more serious the consequences, the more exciting, and up to a certain point, the more pleasurable is the play.

In play the child and adult attempt to achieve gratification by undertaking to confront challenge and to master it.

The challenge that the player undertakes resembles a challenge of the real world, but it differs in being less complex and more manageable; it is titrated to try his capacity but not to defeat him.

Play in neurosis differs from nonneurotic play in that the player deals with inner as distinguished from outer reality, concealing its inner origin by externalizing it. It betrays its origin in conflict by its tendency to escape control and elicit the anxiety that the patient otherwise tries to master by symptom formation.

For those of us who are wearied and stressed by inner or outer struggles, by the need for self-control and self-denial, play offers a means of gratification and recuperation, less radical than the forms of major disengagement from the world with which we are familiar, and a gratifying and readily available alternative to other human diverting institutions such as religion, aesthetics, and science.

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