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The Art of Play in Trauma Recovery

“Playing is itself a therapy,”

Donald Winnicott (1971)

One of the reasons I love Winnicott is that he realizes just how much a child misses out on if they do not have a chance to play or truly ‘be a kid’. This is especially the case for children who have experienced abuse, parental neglect, all resulting in them having to grow up too soon. 

To play means to allow creativity and imagination to flourish. To laugh. 

Be silly. 

Get messy.

As adults, we sadly also sometimes lose this ability to play. In my practice in Toronto (www.cfir.ca), I really start to see the impact of therapy on clients when we get to play together in session through laughter, art and using our imagination. As we share in these moments of creativity, it is incredible to see the bounds of trauma start to loosen its grip. 

As much as the psychodynamic field may have once admonished its therapists to be a ‘blank screen,’ people like Winnicott showed just how essential it is to let go and be silly. It is incredible to see how clients open up and come alive as we share in a private joke or get creative together. This sense of wonder is especially the case as a trauma therapist; while much of our session may delve into darker aspects of a client’s past, being creative and playful enables a start to freedom from these bonds. 

For me, playing comes on the wheel.

In the video below, I am doing what potters call ‘throwing off the hump,’ which means I throw smaller bowls on a large mound of clay so I can cut off the bowl and then immediately make another. This process is incredibly fun because while it produces many pieces (often tinier bowls), it is a rather messy process and requires a level of creativity that makes me feel alive. 

As someone who has also faced past trauma, I find that playing on the wheel, and being messy means that I can let go of some of my guardedness and simply play. I love the way it makes me feel like a kid again.

(This post is shared content from centredself.ca)

Jess A.L. Erb, D.Psychotherapy, R.P. (Qualifying) is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) who believes that the best therapy happens when a deep trust can form between counsellor and client. She works with adults and adolescents in an array of issues such as depression/suicidal ideation, anxiety/panic disorders, grief and loneliness, as well as all forms of abuse – emotional, physical, sexual, self-harm, and eating disorders. Before working as an associate at CFIR, she trained as a doctor in psychotherapy at the University of Edinburgh, UK.