In psychoanalysis, "children's play" is mental and physical activity which gradually becomes more structured in the course of a child's development. This activity bears witness to a psychic capacity for "concentration" within a personal mental sphere of illusion where objects and phenomena in the external world are transformed in accordance with the subject's wishes, so serving the internal world and augmenting pleasure.
For Freud (1905d, 1905c, 1908e, 1911b), children's play, being subject to the pleasure principle, stood opposed to the constraints of critical thought and reality. The opposite of play is not seriousness but reality, even if children like to prop their imaginary objects on visible, tangible ones. Such propping is precisely what distinguishes playing from fantasizing; as the child grows up, it is left behind. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Freud told how he observed his one-and-a-half-year-old grandson repeating in an active way—by making a wooden reel attached to a string alternately disappear and reappear—what he had had to experience passively, namely the departure of his mother; the pleasure derived from this game allowed the child to work over the unpleasurable experience of his mother's absence. In Freud's view, the compulsion to repeat that operated "beyond the pleasure principle" and the child's tendency to seek immediate pleasure through play were intimately linked. Today it is felt that play indeed helps the child tolerate the absence of an object, that it implies the cathexis of a representation: the boy with his reel successfully converts absence into nostalgia.
Melanie Klein was a closer student of the use of play in child psychoanalysis than of the phenomenon of play per se. Following Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, she devised a technique of play interpretation that treated the ordering of children's play as equivalent to the adult's production of associative material in analysis. She was thus able to apply the Freudian method to very young children, opening the way to child psychoanalysis (Klein, 1955).
Donald Woods Winnicott offered an original account of the notion of "play" and incorporated it into psychoanalytic theory. Since play was not subsumed under the sublimation of instincts, Winnicott speculated that a space existed between the mother and her baby: since the mother (or her substitute), motivated by love (or hate) and not by reaction-formations, needed to be able to adapt actively to her baby's needs, to be what the baby was capable of finding while also leaving the baby the time to find her, a realm of illusion emerged in which the infant felt omnipotent (the breast being under its magical control); such feelings of omnipotence were necessary if the infant was going gradually to accept the disillusion to come. According to Winnicott, the intermediate area between mother and infant was occupied by "transitional phenomena"—groups of functional experiences, as for example thumb-sucking, the holding and sucking of the edge of a blanket, a repeated gesture, or the production of musical sounds (Winnicott, 1974, p. 4)—and it arose between the period of primary creativity and that of objective perception founded on reality-testing. The "transitional object," created internally though found in the outside world, would be the first tangible sign of the existence of this intermediate zone where the question whether experience was of external or of internal origin simply did not arise. Transitional objects lay "between me and not-me."
There is a direct progression, in the Winnicottian perspective, from transitional phenomena to play, from the child's ability to play alone in the presence of another person to the ability to play a game with others—at first with the mother and only later with peers. Until the age of five or six, children play alongside one another rather than with one another, as Anna Freud showed in her discussion of lines of development. Play involves the body, and the pleasure derived from the functioning of the ego in play activity requires that neither excitement nor anxiety be too intense; children's play is a precarious achievement within the area between subjectivity (not to say hallucination) and objective perception. The capacity for play, once successfully acquired, will endure in every kind of inner experimentation, in the life of the imagination and in adult creativity, although, beginning at the latency period, the individual must become capable of suspending play activity.
See also: Active imagination (analytical psychology); Activity/passivity; Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Breast, good/bad object; Child analysis; Childhood; "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming"; Creativity; Fantasy (reverie); Fort-Da; Humor; Illusion; Infant observation (therapeutic); Jokes; Magical thinking; Metaphor; Object a ; Visual arts and psychoanalysis; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Psycho-Analysis of Children, The ; Rambert, Madeleine; Richard, case of; Squiggle; Technique with children, psychoanalytic; Transitional object, space; Transitional object; Transitional phenomena; Unconscious fantasy.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905c). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE, 8: 1-236.
——. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
——. (1908e). Creative writers and day-dreaming. SE, 9: 141-153.
——. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.
——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
Klein, Melanie. (1955). The psycho-analytic play technique: Its history and significance. In Envy and gratitude and other writings, 1946-1963 (The Writings of Melanie Klein, vol. 3), London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Kurts, Nora. (1993). L'Enfant qui ne savait pas jouer. Psychiatrie de l 'Enfant 36, no. 2, pp. 537-554.
Lebovici, Serge, and Diatkine, René. (1962). Fonction et signification du jeu chez l'enfant. Psychiatrie de l 'Enfant 4, 207-253.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1974). Playing and reality. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
Furman, Erna. (1990). Play and work in early childhood. Child Analysis, 1, 60-76.
Klein, Melanie. (1929). Personification in the play of children. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 10, 193-204.
"Children's play." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/childrens-play
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