What’s so important about play?

I hope the images in this video call up your own experiences with a variety of kinds of play, from peek a boo to martial arts, from playground games to board games, from team sports to playful solitary activity. It is not the specific activity that matters as we human beings have the capacity to play in an infinite variety of ways. I am more interested in the dialectic between self and other or individual and relationship that is facilitated in the space where play happens than in any particular form that play takes.

Peek-a-boo is one of our first playful games. It is, of course, about being seen and being hidden, being there and not there. It is a game that can only be played with someone else and is therefore illustrative of the significance of a relationship with another in defining oneself. Peek-a-boo is a mirror game in which we begin to see ourselves as our mothers see us.

A Different Light Photography

This website is dedicated to an exploration of the importance of play in human development, creativity, and social life.

As a psychoanalyst, I am particularly interested in the relationship between play and the development of identity. We all begin in a symbiotic union with our mothers. How is it that we develop a separate sense of ourselves and others? How do we come to know our subjectivity. And, specifically, how does play facilitate such a complex achievement as subjectivity?

What is important about play is that it allows us, as individuals, to have a separate identity while being deeply connected to others.

When I was first introduced to the work of D. W. Winnicott (pediatrician and psychoanalyst) as a social work student at NYU, I was taken by how in simple and straightforward prose he was able to convey profound insights about the importance of the environment in facilitating and nurturing the development of a human being. He wrote extensively about the role of play in the making of our identities.

Winnicott was a bit of a rebel in the psychoanalytic world of his time because of his insistence on the importance of the environment in which an infant was raised. While many (if not most) psychoanalysts and certainly most social workers today assume the that the social environment in which we live has a significant impact on our functioning as human beings, in the early days of psychoanalysis, such focus on the environment was considered scientifically suspect.

Winnicott’s ideas about play are about the human capacity to imagine–to think symbolically–which seems to come about through play and in the interaction with others. People are the main others (mothers are actually the first main others) but objects that become transitional objects (that lie in the space between self and other and between real and not real) are also part of that process.

My work is also grounded in phenomenology, which focuses on the lived experience of the individual subject and which assumes that our identities come into being in relation to others. My focus here is on how play figures into our relationships–how it binds us to one another, how it influences our relationship to our own power and to the power of others, and how it allows us to create and re-create ourselves.

On my Blog page, you will find posts that explore play from a variety of vantage points. I examine images, film, and text through a psychoanalytic lens with a focus on the role of play in human development.

One of my goals is to make psychoanalytic ideas accessible to a wider audience than psychoanalysts. If you are new to psychoanalysis, you might want to check out my Glossary page, where I define terms that may be unfamiliar. If there is something missing or still unclear, ask me!

You can learn more about me here.

In the interest of playful dialogue, I invite you to leave a comment or ask me a question.