Child’s Play : Games Give Experts New Insight Into Children’s Psyches

Times Staff Writer

In a Woodland Hills class that tries to help children develop creativity by encouraging them to fantasize, Michael, 3, decides to open a restaurant, dictates a menu and makes play money with his teachers, who hang a sign: Michael’s Restaurant.

At Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, an orthopedist puts a cast on a teddy bear and tells its young owner that he will wear a similar dressing after surgery. The child, relieved, takes the toy into the operating room and adjusts easily to surgery and to his cast.

In a New Jersey psychiatrist’s office, a troubled child narrates a story about figures he places on a picture to earn chips as part of a new game whose mildly competitive nature, the psychiatrist says, helps children more efficiently reveal secrets.

From the San Fernando Valley to New Jersey, therapists are expanding the uses of play to learn more about children and to help them overcome their problems.


Solving Problems Faster

Although experts have studied children’s play for decades, they say they now are solving youngsters’ problems faster and more thoroughly by using toys, art and other such objects. They are exploring techniques that go far beyond aspects of therapy and children’s play that have become familiar to the public, practices such as the controversial use of dolls in sexual molestation trials.

“We are reshaping well-known play methods to new areas,” said Judith Wallerstein, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children of divorce as executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition near San Francisco.

Charles E. Schaefer, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and director of the Assn. for Play Therapy in Yonkers, N.Y., agreed, saying: “We are setting the stage so the child can go right to what’s bothering him.”

Spencer Eth, a psychiatrist at the USC and UCLA medical schools, said one prominent advance in treatment employs techniques of play therapy to help children involved in traumatic incidents, including wars, earthquakes, kidnapings, car accidents, incest or rape.

“In the past,” he said, “someone might have said that what’s best is to help a child forget the trauma. We now know that the most important thing is not forgetting--it’s helping a child master his fears.

“That requires working it through with play repeatedly until a child feels more in control of his memories about the experience.”

Much of the initial research on play and childhood trauma was conducted relatively recently by UC San Francisco psychiatrist Lenore Terr.


Terr studied 26 students kidnaped from a Chowchilla, Calif., bus in 1976 and buried alive in a truck trailer for 16 hours. Terr interviewed the students five months after the kidnaping and again four to five years later. She decided that play was the key to diagnosing and treating their trauma.

“Let’s say a little girl is bitten by a dog and takes the toy dog in my office and says it is going to bite this toy child,” she said. “Then I say to the girl that this toy child is very scared.

“The little girl tells me that the bite was the toy child’s fault. And I say how could it be her fault? We discuss it, and I find out that this little girl feels guilty that she was bitten by the dog and has taken responsibility for it.

“Then I have two choices: I can stay inside the play and say that little toy girl is making herself feel bad for what the toy dog did. Or I can say directly to her that you made yourself feel bad for what Bowser did to you. Both of those options are therapeutic.”


Terr said that in merely stressful situations, such as when youngsters receive a bad grade at school or must visit the doctor, “children under 12 tend to work the situation through by mimicking it in play about three or four times.”

But when they are traumatized, their play differs notably.

“It’s grim, monotonous and repetitive,” she said. “And it doesn’t happen a handful of times. It happens myriads of times.

“It can be dangerous because it repeats an aspect of a horrible event. It can also involve other youngsters. The anxiety behind it is extreme and other children respond to that kind of anxiety just the way they respond to ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’ So they join the game and therefore it’s contagious.”


Sometimes, Terr added, children reach a stage where they are not traumatized but feel helpless. This was the situation that developed among Whittier children after the 1987 earthquake, one observer noted. Mental health professionals watching children play in the city realized they were suffering and needed help, said Judith Wagner, coordinator of child development programs at Whittier College.

“Right after we had the earthquake, the children in our campus lab school played earthquake again and again and again,” Wagner noted. “Some child would declare an earthquake and it was contagious. Other children would knock over the blocks or squeal and run or say everybody go under the table. They would put all the little dolls and furniture in the doll houses and shake them and make every one fall out.

“Later, they might do the same scenario but would take the next step: They might rebuild those block houses they had knocked over, or take a little doll to the hospital and put a bandage on it.

“Their play represented progress from the sheer panic of the event to dramatization that included healing and restoration. In real experience they had no control, but in play they could make it turn out all right.”


Play long has been considered a mirror of a child’s internal psychological development and an essential part of healthy growth.

“Children are able to express in play what they are too young, too frightened or too pained to express in words,” Wallerstein said. “Children acquire language and ability to express things quite late, much later than they are able to differentiate feelings. A child can be happy, embarrassed or terrified but not able to convey those distinctions, except in play.”

Play is so universal it sometimes “burst forth spontaneously and uncontrollably” on roads leading to gas chambers in Nazi death camps, according to “Children and Play in the Holocaust,” a recent book by anthropologist George Eisen of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Because play is universal, a perceptive parent can get clues about his child’s well-being by watching for themes, West Los Angeles child psychologist Don Fleming said, noting, “a child who has serious problems may consistently break, smash or throw toys. If a child is feeling out of control, play becomes chaotic,” Fleming said. “He may flit from one thing to another and not be able to stay with anything because he is so anxious and nervous. Children feeling overly needy may regress to play from an earlier stage. A child who is 7 may need to be given a bottle or want to be held like a baby.


“Kids who normally enjoy play may withdraw from it,” he added. “Play is a child’s life. If a child withdraws a great deal, it is likely that there is some depression.”

Other experts said parents should not only watch their children at play but join in.

“When parents have an inner, spontaneous empathy with the very special meaning play has for their child, this in itself does a great deal for the child and their relationship,” psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim said. “What (the child) needs most is the parents’ emotional commitment to the importance of his play, so that it can be fully significant to him.”

Play also can be important to parents.


“Our lives can only be played out in a limited number of official roles--we can not pull off becoming both a fireman and a brain surgeon,” said Louisville child psychiatrist Adam Blatner, co-author of “The Art of Play.”

“Yet we can also play many more unofficial roles which can be expressed in fantasy and make believe play. Children do this naturally. The role playing shifts us from passive activities such as watching TV to a greater involvement in imaginative endeavors.

“There are many levels of imaginative involvement. By playing the roles, you increase your capacity to observe how you play the role and to choose which roles you play, and the exercise of all these functions helps you get in touch with your natural creative ability.”