The Science and Art of Integrative Play Therapy.
Shlomo Ariel Behind any advanced genre of colorful and enjoying creative activity there is a dry, stern, spectacled theory. The most creative uses of language – poetry, puns, witticisms – obey or take into account the rules of language. The dry, strict science of linguistics.
provides the conceptual and methodological framework for learning and formulating such rules. Many students find linguistics tedious and boring, but they know that it helps them learn a language and explore its creative potentialities. The most moving and beautiful pieces of music adhere to or take into account the strict rules of music- making. The rigorous, exact science of musicology with its theory of harmony, counterpoint, rhythmic patterns etc. serves as the conceptual and methodological framework for reading and writing music. Many prefer listening to music or playing it than learning musicology, but , despite themselves, they must admit that musicology can deepen their understanding of music, guide them through the music-making process and enrich their creative repertoire. Likewise, play therapists can greatly benefit from a science of “playistics” or “playology”. The writer, a play therapist, play researcher, psychotherapist and family therapist with previous background in linguistics, semiotics , anthropology and cognitive science has been devoting a great deal of his professional time in the last thirty years to developing such a science and exploring its practical applications. The following pages present a bird’s eye view of this work. Shortage of space prevents me from illustrating the concepts and methods presented with examples, but interested readers are referred to my other publications for numerous field and clinical examples.
The work in its current state includes the following constituents:
(a) An integrative theory and methodology of make-believe play.
These theory and methodology integrate, systematizes and explicate a wide range of concepts, research findings and analytic methods and techniques pertaining to make-believe play found in the various fields in which play has been studied: the various branches of psychology, education, anthropology, human ethology, etc. The theory explicates and formalizes this integration, using concepts and terms borrowed form linguistics, semiotics, anthropology and cognitive science (The latter comprises cybernetics (the theory of homeostatic feedback systems) and human information-processing theory). The resulting integrative model covers the following sub-fields:
A formal definition of the very notion of “make-believe play”; (see Ariel 1984, Ariel 1994 chapter 2; Ariel 2002, chapter 1)
Make-believe play as a language in the wide sense of this term, a semiotic communication system for expression and communication of signs and symbols; (see Ariel 2002, chapter 2 and appendix).
Make-believe play as an homeostatic feedback mechanism for regulating the level of emotional arousal around the player’s central emotional concerns (emotives) (see Ariel 2002 chapter 5).
Make-believe play as an homeostatic feedback mechanism for regulating the level of interpersonal conflicts around issues of interpersonal proximity and control (see Ariel 1992 and Ariel 2002 chapter 3).
Social laws created by children for regulating their inter-relations concerning participation in play groups, leadership of play groups and the right of use of play objects and territories during sociodramatic play; (see Ariel 2002, chapter 4).
The interface between make-believe play development and the child’s socio-emotional development (Ariel 1992 and Ariel 2002 chapter 6).
Make-believe play from a cross-cultural perspective. (Ariel 2002 chapter 7).
The methodology includes various heuristic and analytic techniques for analyzing make-believe play texts, e.g.
1. Semiotic analysis of play texts
An analytic technique for revealing, micro-analyzing , macro-analyzing and describing the vocabulary and surface rules of the language of play texts.
The basic units and structures of the play texts are analyzed and described on the raw material, semantic(meaning) and pragmatic (social-communicational) levels. (see Ariel 1992; Ariel 1994 chapters 4-8; Ariel 1999 chapters 9 and 10 and Ariel 2002 chapter 2 and appendix).
2. Context-Dependent Componential Analysis
This is an adaptation of a technique developed by anthropological linguists for studying semantic (meaning) systems in cultures.(see Hammel, 1965). The context dependent version of this technique, developed by the writer, can be used to reveal and formulate the deep structures and rules underlying the choice of play signifiers and signified contents and to X-ray the psychodynamic mechanisms regulating the process of playing. It can also expose deep cultural characteristics manifested in the child’s play (See Ariel 1999, pp. 133-137 and Ariel 2002, pp.64-65, 170-184)
3. Interpersonal play analysis
This is an analytic technique for revealing and formulating the structures and dynamics underlying social make-believe play interactions. The interpersonal proximity and control goals of the participants, their strategic plans for reaching these goals and the playful means used in these plans are formulated explicitly as general rules. (see Ariel 1994 chapters 7, 8 and Ariel 2002 chapter 3 and appendix).
4. Make-believe play developmental scales
The developmental stages of make-believe play are described along various parameters (See Ariel 2002 chapter 6).
5. Make-believe play cross-cultural scales
Parameters are provided for comparing the nature and level of make-believe play across cultures, against the background of various non-play cultural parameters. (See Ariel 2002 chapter 7).
The basic text introducing this model and methodology is Ariel 2002, but parts of it are presented also in the other publications listed in the list of references.
(b) An integrative theory and methodology of play diagnosis and play therapy.
These theory and methodology are based on the model of make-believe play summarized above, but add to it an integration, systematization and explication of heterogeneous concepts and research findings related to play-diagnostic and play-therapeutic methods and techniques found in the literature. These theory and methodology serve as rigorous guides for the practice of individual, family and group play therapy. The theory includes an exact, explicit analysis of the etiology and nature of “bugs” set in the individual’s the family’s or the group’s information-processing programs and cause distortions in the ways information is processed . Such bugs are the sources of the difficulties brought to therapy. The main types of bugs are horse blinders (the vista is narrowed down. Crucial information fails to be processed), Baron von Muchhausen (Judgment of reality is impaired), and topsy turvy (information is processed inconsistently). The information processing systems of individuals, families or groups are especially prone to be infected with such bugs in periods of stressful change or traumatic crisis. The bugs may be viewed as inadequate emotional defenses, dysfunctional attempts to cope with a barrage of new, unfamiliar, bewildering and stressful information. (see Ariel 1994 chapter 1; Ariel 1996, 1997; Ariel 1999 Chapter 8 and Ariel 2002 pp.135-139).
Bug-busters: Play therapy with an individual, a family or a group mobilizes “bug-busters“, well-defined curative properties of play that have the power to weaken or remove such bugs. The bug-busters are derived from three different sources:
First source of bug-busters: The role of play as an homeostatic feedback mechanism for regulating the level of emotional arousal around the player’s emotives; (see above); Such bug-busters are:
repetition in a safe environment. When emotionally loaded themes are repeated over and over again in the safe environment of play an habituating, positively reinforcing effect is created.
distancing – Signified contents and signifiers belonging to the core of the player’s emotives are replaced by themes and signifiers belonging to the emotives’ periphery.
E.g. the theme of the death of the child’s father is replaced by the theme of the loss of a valuable object.
Introducing protective devices – e.g. a boy who introduced the theme of “drowning”
into his play took a toy doctor’s tool box and called it “a red-cross submarine”
Neutralizing – e.g. a girl who played with a threatening toy shark said (as if from the mouth of the shark): Not to worry, I’m hollow.
Compensating: e.g. a boy whose father went bankrupt played as if his family lived in a hundred-room house.
Empowering: e.g. a boy who was beaten by his peers played as if his skin turned into
A steel shield.
The play therapeutic uses of these bug-busters are controlled applications of natural emotionally balancing uses of play, observed in children’s spontaneous play activities. The main play-therapeutic effect of these bug-busters is preparing the ground for the operation of other bug-busters. Since bugs are energized by unbalanced emotional responses to stress, clients are more likely to be receptive to corrective information after the balance of their emotional system has at least partly been restored.
Second source of bug-busters: The very definition of the concept “make-believe play” (See Ariel 2002, Chapter 1). Bug busters of this kind are:
owning and alienation – in play the player both owns and disowns the contents of the play. For example, a child who is jealous of a younger sibling both owns and disowns her jealousy when expressed in make-believe play. This bug-buster can be applied to help a client own rejected (horse blindered) information in the fantasy world of play without disowning it explicitly, or vice versa.
basic duality – in play the player is both the actor that plays a role and the persona he or she is in the role of. For example, playing as if I am lying is forcing me to observe myself and examine my own habit of lying.
arbitrariness of the signifier – in play anything can signify anything. For example a toy snake given by a mother to her child can signify a candy, exposing an inconsistency in the mother’s parental attitude.
possible worlds – in play any potential or imaginary world can be created. For example, a family torn by aggressive conflicts can play a family of angels.
These bug- busters detour the defenses. They help the clients, whose emotional state has already been balanced by the previous, emotionally balancing, bug-busters, go through a corrective cognitive-emotional experience without being required to leave the fantasy world of make-believe. Missing information (due to horse blinders) is retrieved, distorted information (due to Baron von Munchausen) and inconsistent information (due to topsy-turvy) are exposed as such and put right.
Third source of bug-busters: make-believe play as a regulative mechanism for interpersonal conflicts with respect to proximity and control (see above). The main bug-buster of this category is covert-communication – Difficult proximity-control issues and conflicts are disguised as make-believe play communications. For example, a child who wants an over-protective mother to get off her back plays as if she is a magic woman who can take care of her own affairs.
(see Ariel,Carel and Tyano 1985; Ariel 1994 chapter 3; Ariel 1996 and 1997 and Ariel 2002, pp. 139-142)
In this genre of therapy the therapist is an active participant in the spontaneous play of the individual child, the family or the group. The therapeutic goals are achieved by three kinds of play moves: main moves, in which bug-busters are subtly activates, preparatory moves preparing the ground for the main moves and auxiliary moves.
controlling side effects of preparatory or main moves. Preparatory and auxiliary moves have various functions such as joining, influencing the course of the play, supporting, focusing attention and emphasizing, commenting, reflecting and interpreting. These are achieved by playful techniques such as mimicking clients’ play , activating audio-visual effects, providing stimuli, pacing, playing the double, providing an illusion of alternatives, etc. Some of these techniques have been observed in children’s spontaneous play. Other have been borrowed from Milton Erickson and other strategic therapists.
This article was invited by, and published in, Play Therapy, the Journal of the Association for Play Therapy, USA, 2006.