The idea of play therapy is not new. Play therapists guide children in playing out their struggles and conflicts, for example through sand tray therapy, and when it is successful the children who participate are, as a result, better able to handle their lives. But maybe play therapy shouldn’t just be for children.
Adults can benefit from play therapy too, but they often don’t know it. Many adults have forgotten how to play or don’t feel like it’s socially okay to play. For some adults, only when they drink alcohol or use other drugs can they give themselves permission to truly have fun playing. In the summer of 2011, psychotherapist Jennifer Dale and I conducted a “Social Confidence and Self Esteem Class” at the Marriage and Family Center. We guided participants through an increasingly interactive series of social games. By the participant’s report, it was not only effective in helping them address some of their barriers to social confidence, it was also a lot of fun (more about this group later).
True play is a psychological state quite like meditation. Someone fully engaged in a social game, whether it be tag, werewolf or sardines, is typically self aware, other aware, and focused on playing the game and nothing else. One can lose ones inhibition and get into the game in a way that allows for a kind of genuine and complete fun that has become lacking in our modern, must-be-busily-productive-at-all-times, culture. Bernie De Koven, author and games researcher calls this state “coliberation,” a term that combines collaboration with liberation but doesn’t really come very close to the meaning of either word. In true play, coliberation roughly means participants free themselves and one another from fear and judgement (self consciousness and prejudice).
Fun is absolutely necessary to mental health. A few years ago happiness researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who calls true play “flow”, conducted a study in which subjects were to simply be productive from the time they woke up until 9:00 pm–doing nothing that could be considered recreation. After 48 hours they had to stop the study because some of the participants had developed the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Play provides the kind of renewing of our mind and spirit that can happen in no other way. From within the experience of true play comes emotional healing. Fun therapy.
There are people who are very good at leading people to a state of true play. Julia Heatherwick for example, a seminar leader and training coach in our fair town of Bakersfield, occasionally conducts Laughter is the Best Medicine groups at the Mercy Art and Spirituality Center. During these groups she leads participants through a number of interactive “exercises” or games that engage people with one another and with their imagination in fun and connecting ways.
I am always looking for opportunities to play–to add playful experiences to my day, and to do the things before me in more playful ways.
If like me, you like to explore the healing power of play, please introduce yourself below.