The Power of Play

Imagination is a life- changing resource. I would like to share the story of an event that happened recently while leading a drama workshop for children aged 6-8.

For privacy reasons I will call the student Claire, and her younger sister Anne. Claire is an 8 year old girl on the autism spectrum who experiences a high level of social anxiety which causes selective mutism and an extreme fear of socializing with other children.

Her younger sister Anne, age 5, is typically developing and stands by her sister firmly in most attitudes her sister takes at any given time (unless she forgets this stubborn commitment and gets distracted by activities that engage her). Claire's mother, Jen, expressed interest in Claire joining our group drama classes, along with well-founded doubt that it would be next to impossible to motivate her to do so knowing there would be other children in the room. Jen warned me in her initial email that the previous therapist who worked with Claire hadn't been able to get a spoken word from her until 6 months of having worked with her, so she was expecting very slow progress around her integration. Jen even said it was counter intuitive to be considering sending Claire to our classes, but that she knew Claire's true personality to be that of a performer with a wonderfully strong imagination. Motivated by the knowledge of her daughter's true personality, she was willing to work with us for as long as it would take. Her prediction was that Claire would need 6 months to 2 years of private drama classes before she would be willing to integrate into a new student body.

With all this in mind, I suggested a private in-home session with Claire and Anne so that they would be in their most comfortable space- their home, when first meeting me. I had been warned by Jen that Claire would build a fort of toys between her room and the main living area as a shield of protection against me. S.K Levine and E.G Levine (1999) say that 'one needs to take care not to impose one's own needs and images on the child... following the lead of the child is central. Transitional space can only arise when the child can feel heard, seen and understood.' So what was this child trying to say to me that she needed me to hear? She was saying that she had zero interest in connecting with me.

When I entered the house, in accordance with a desire to respect her needs, I simply said, 'Oh, that's a nice fort', without making eye contact with her or putting any pressure on her to respond. I simply moved into the living room and started taking toys out of my suitcase, to which her younger sister Anne immediately responded to with enthusiasm. To their mother's surprise, within half an hour, Claire, Anne and I were playing, talking and laughing together! Why? I believe it's because Claire felt heard. And then, therefore, wanted to speak. I will fast forward through four further private sessions with Claire and Anne in my studio space over the course of a month (where after serious hesitation each week both girls would end up flamboyantly engaged in performance) to their first day of the spring group drama workshop, themed poetry.

The day before the group workshop began, I decided to have a private in-studio session where I invited the girls to build a fort- a protective framework I remembered Claire using when her and I first met. They both engaged enthusiastically in the building of the fort and a 'PRIVATE! KEEP OUT!' sign decorated with blood and eyeballs. This idea proved to be successful when they came early to class the next day in order to re-build their fort in the room where the group class was to be held. They were actually there! Early! In the group drama class, before everyone else... even if it was to build a protective fort against everyone else!

Of course as soon as the other children entered the room and saw a fort they wanted to enter it, but I suggested we build our own instead, which they were very excited about. For the first half hour of class, Claire and Anne stayed in their fort. Every now and then I would notice a sparkle from their curious eyes peering through the cracks of their fort. Once the other students had built their fort, all of us except Claire and Anne went inside it and learnt the witches spell from Macbeth: 'Double Double Toil and Trouble... fire burn and cauldron bubble!' It must have seemed like too much fun to miss out on because surely enough the boys' fort had a piece of paper thrown into it by the girls' that read: Girls against Boys. Contact! The boys were more than happy to engage immediately in this offer to play, and from that point onwards both girls participated in rest of the class! They particularly enjoyed creating monster characters and acting out scenes where they showed off their power against other monsters. Their mother Jen was amazed, grateful and extremely moved. I thanked her for finding Purple Carrots and for believing in the power of drama.

I believe the reason for success in Claire and Anne's first class is best described by S.K Levine and E.G Levine's (1999) explanation of the power of the creation of a Frame: 'The creation of an as-if world is central to both playing and art-making... when the therapist emphasizes the special nature of the space in which the work takes place, he or she if firming up the frame. If the frame is secure, it can hold anything. We can go anywhere, do anything, providing we stay within the frame. The frame holds imaginal activity. Firming up the frame requires speaking about how special the space is, how the time is circumscribed, and how we cannot hurt each other. We can do anything as long as we pretend to do it. Establishing the pretence is the creation of the as-if world; this makes it possible for playing, as therapy, to take place... When imagination can be framed and enhanced in play in this way, then a shift may occur in the child's relationship to reality.'

Claire's reality transformed from seeing other children as extremely frightening, to people who were safe to connect and have fun with. The frame of us being witches in girls vs. boys forts allowed for this change to happen, which is why I firmly believe in the power play.

By Silvina D'Alessandro.