Think back on a moment from your childhood when you were your most exuberant self—a time that felt like the most fun ever. Were you horse-playing at a pool and laughing so hard you had tears streaming down your face? Maybe you were dancing to loud music with pals. Or catching frogs in a creek with your brother. Regardless of the activity, did time seem to stop?
Even if you didn’t get much chance to be silly or raucous as a kid—or your play was often quashed by adults demanding silence and obedience—each of us has a play history. If yours has a negative cast, a small act of silliness or playfulness may feel dangerous. But a playful self still exists inside you, regardless of your age—and you can still give that bouncy, pent-up kid permission to frolic.
According to the National Institute for Play, we all need to romp a little—and maybe a lot. In adulthood, play can ward off depression and degenerative brain diseases, stimulate creativity, and strengthen our relationships. When we laugh together, our empathy meter jolts upward, as do our capacities for intimacy and compassion. Unfortunately, many of our adult clients find it hard to plunge into play, perhaps believing that the serious responsibilities of daily living, plus society’s expectations that they “act like grown-ups,” matter more than letting go.
Playing in adulthood requires getting back in touch with delight for its own sake. I often tell clients that as babies, play was what gave us pleasure and motivated us to seek out new experiences. Sticking out our tongues, for instance, and seeing a parent laugh and stick out theirs in return, sparked such joy that we did it again and again.
Even when we think we’re playing, are we really? When we hit the basketball court wearing a Fitbit or attend a dance class as part of a workout regimen, are we really letting ourselves go freely? When we practice the piano or guitar, do we allow ourselves to get pleasurably immersed in the music, or do we hope mainly to improve our dexterity and rhythm, so we can master the next, more sophisticated piece?
Yes, a sense of achievement can be a positive byproduct of play, but we may not be getting the submersion in exuberance and pleasure that our minds, bodies, and souls truly need. In this sense, true adult play can feel radical—even transgressive. And paradoxically, it can take some mental effort to really let it rip.
Because you can’t just tell someone to go out and be more playful, it helps to play in sessions so clients can take that experience—that spark—out into the real world. I’m not suggesting therapists devote entire sessions to play, but what about bookending 50 minutes with playful activities, or adding an activity in the middle to experiment with the coming-alive process that play brings?
Learning how to play with clients may sound like a great undertaking, given how few of us have more than a glancing familiarity with play-therapy tools, but simple options that play therapists already use with kids can easily be incorporated into our work with adults, too. For instance, bopping a balloon back and forth, making silly sounds for the other person to imitate, or copying one another’s movements as if looking in the mirror can all shift the energy in a session.
Therapists might try creating a special handshake with a client, or a special “happy dance” to indicate when something in life or a session has gone well. They could make up nonsense words to represent big feelings or throw cotton balls dipped in water at a window and watch them splat to help work through stuck points.
Play worked wonders for a depressed client of mine, Gina. Referred to me after leaving an abusive relationship, she felt that in some ways, her life was getting back on track. She’d filed an order of protection against her ex-partner, received trauma treatment, and gotten a job. But her relationship with her four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was worrisome: she saw herself as a bad mother and wanted to run away from the role.
In our first meeting, I asked Gina to describe her feelings toward Elizabeth. She responded by telling me how loud, needy, and attention-seeking her daughter was. She added, “It grosses me out the way she’s always wiping her nose. Oh, and she eats so loudly and smears her food around.”
I gently interrupted her to ask, “Is there any part of parenting Elizabeth that you enjoy?”
“No,” she said flatly.
But as we moved on to explore other aspects of her life, it began to feel less like Gina’s depression was centered around parenting specifically, and more like her life in general generated no sparks of pleasure. Having human interactions didn’t spark much. Her mood didn’t lift by being out in nature or the wider world. Going to the store got her out of the house at least, but she said she felt like a robot when she was wandering the aisles. When she’d pick up Elizabeth from school, she’d rarely notice anything she drove by in the car, and often had no recollection of how she got there or back.
“Let’s try something,” I suggested gently. “Even though it might be hard to feel good these days, tell me about the things you used to enjoy when you were younger, before you got involved with your ex.”
She shrugged, mumbled something barely decipherable about playing guitar, then said, “Look, I see what you’re trying to do, but I was born with this feeling of unhappiness. My whole life has been a series of disappointments.” She slumped sideways on the edge of the couch and was leaning her head on the armrest.
I began to feel hopeless myself. Talking wasn’t getting us anywhere, and, desperate to bring some energy into the room, I looked around. A packet of colorful feathers left over from an earlier session with a child was on my table. I pulled out a royal blue plume and placed it on the armrest, just in front of Gina’s nose.
“Let’s see if the air from your nose can make the feather move,” I said.
After a moment, her breath began to jiggle the feather’s outer edges, causing its whispy ends to sway. Finally, she blew a stronger breath out through her mouth, and the feather glided off the armrest. I lurched for it and caught it in midair, which made me laugh loudly. As I looked at her with glee, she smiled back at me. Then, I blew the feather in her direction, hoping she’d catch it. But she didn’t move. “That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll just see if I can make it land on the armrest.”
On my first try, I blew the feather toward her, but it landed on her knee. The next one I tried came to rest in her hair. I blew feather after feather, and when they landed near her face, she engaged and blew them away. But when they fell on her clothes or the couch, she left them there. One landed on her shoe, and she shook it off playfully.
We kept at this for a while, and though I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, Gina was finally relaxing enough to interact. At the end of the session, she had to shake herself vigorously to get all the feathers off her clothes. A green one clung to her hair, caught in a perfectly spiraled curl. I pointed it out, and she let me pick it off. When I showed it to her, she opened her hand to receive it, then shoved it in her front pocket before heading out the door.
I was hopeful we could move forward, but Gina came in listless to the next session. When I asked her what she’d done with the green feather, she said, “I don’t know. It got washed and disappeared, I guess.”
At first, I wasn’t sure what to do, but because of how play had helped us last time, I offered, “Want to play another game?”
I reached into the recycling bin, pulled out a wadded-up piece of printer paper, handed it to her, and made a basket with my arms. “I’m going to call out a bunch of colors, and when I say your favorite, throw the paper ball into my basket,” I directed. “Red. Blue. Green. Yellow. Purple. Orange. Pink. Black. Magenta.”
Nothing. I began to think she wasn’t planning to play.
“White,” I said, holding my breath, and she threw it in.
“Some people think white isn’t a color,” Gina said. “But they don’t realize it encompasses all the colors in the spectrum.”
Emboldened, I pushed my chair farther away and said, “Next question: favorite type of food.” I went through several options, and when I said Chinese, she threw it in.
There were other categories I couldn’t guess, like her favorite type of music. After I ran out of genres, she told me she loved Gregorian chants. “Are you serious?!” I laughed.
She smiled and insisted she was telling the truth. I felt like her playful holding out on some of the categories had been a test, a mischievous way to see me struggle and flounder, but also to silently ask, “Can you catch me? Will you discover me?”
After that, play was our ritual. It started every session. Sometimes the activities were vigorous, like tossing a beach ball back and forth. Other sessions were quieter, like when we played with finger paint. Still other activities were downright silly, like mimicking each other’s funny faces, through which I discovered that Gina could touch her tongue to her nose. She could also fold the tip of her ear into itself and then pop it out on command. It was a family trait from her father’s side, and it sent me into a fit of laughter.
Gina didn’t laugh in return, but she was proud that I couldn’t copy her tricks—and she smiled when I leaned in and exclaimed, “You’re so talented!”
Playing Too Hard
Not all my games landed. In one session, I proposed playing peanut butter and jelly, where one person says “peanut butter” in a funny way and the other responds by saying “jelly” in the same funny way. Gina didn’t enjoy my over-the-top impressions of a British accent or my exaggerated emphasizing of the wrong syllables. As her face stayed flat, I felt foolish and desperately increased my theatricality in an attempt to get a response. Finally, I yelled “peanut butter” so loudly that she froze. I immediately felt my stomach drop, like I’d done something gravely wrong, like I had violated her.
“Did I make you uncomfortable?” I asked.
“How clever of you to notice,” she spat sarcastically.
I hadn’t seen this biting side of her before, and knew I’d hurt her. I apologized, backed off, and waited.
Tears welled up in her eyes. After a few moments, she told me she was scared to be loud: she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. Keeping quiet meant she wouldn’t get in trouble. She confessed this was part of what triggered her when her daughter was rowdy and messy.
“Why are we playing all these games?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “The energy within you felt so low and, frankly, hopeless. I wanted to see if we could change that. And what we’ve discovered along the way is how fun and playful you are. You’re very funny, and you can be in the moment.”
“It does feel nice to be in the moment for a positive reason,” she responded quietly. “I’m usually in my head unless something bad is happening.”
A Difficult Play Past
After a few sessions, Gina’s comfort level with me had grown, and the story of her childhood came out one day. She’d been neglected by drug-addicted parents. The youngest of four siblings, she was often under their care as they smoked marijuana and drank alcohol while driving around with Gina in the family car.
She has vivid memories of one brother sitting atop her and tickling her until she cried. When she’d screamed for help, her parents, hung over from a night of drinking, yelled at her to be quiet. The other siblings would make her watch horror movies, even though she was afraid, and thought it was funny to hold her hands behind her back and force her to keep her eyes open during terrifying scenes. She became addicted to alcohol and drugs at age 14. At 24, she got pregnant, joined a 12-step program, and got psychiatric help.
The more that Gina unpacked her past between the games we played, the more buoyant she became. She was chattier and had more energy. She sat upright on the couch and smiled more. She was more curious. She told me she played the silly-face game with her daughter: she initiated a silly face, Elizabeth immediately copied it, and they both tried to hold it through peals of laughter. When one of them broke, Gina turned away and pretended they were done, before swiveling her head back around wearing a new ridiculous expression and sending Elizabeth into another fit of laughter.
A few months into our work, she told me that as she was at the car wash, waiting in line to pay, she noticed a customer ahead of her was particularly animated as he chit-chatted with the cashier. When the cashier announced the price, the man asked playfully if he could have a discount or maybe a voucher for a free car wash to use later. Seeing Gina smile at him, he joked, “Don’t laugh! I’m gonna need another wash in three days with the amount of trash my kids throw in my back seat.”
“I feel ya,” Gina chuckled. “My daughter’s boogers are smeared on the back of my seat, and they don’t come off, no matter how many times I try to scrape them off.”
Thrilled with her retort, I said, “How fun!”
“Yeah,” Gina replied. “Before, I would’ve kept to myself. I would’ve even been intimidated by the guy. But I’d liked his bold playfulness with the cashier. We laughed for a minute, and then I hopped in my car and said, ‘Bye, have a nice day!’ It was great!”
“What changed that made you engage with him?” I asked.
“I found out I was funny,” she answered. “I found out it was okay to laugh and be silly, that it isn’t scary.”
I learned a lot from Gina. I learned that by getting out of my head and following my instinct to take the risk of engaging her in something energetic and childlike, I opened a pathway for us to connect on another level. I got to witness Gina’s spontaneity, humor, and strength: qualities I don’t think I could’ve accessed through talk alone. It highlighted for me how the spontaneity and energy of play can reveal a client’s hidden strengths and elicit growth.
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Playfulness and humor are energy. So why not be the therapist who emphasizes clients’ potential to help heal themselves with play? You’ll wake up their nervous systems, connect with them, and allow them to see that you’re someone who values their play selves—that essential bit of who they really are.
Most therapies are missing out on a fundamental tool for healing when they ignore the power of feeling playful embodiment with others. To help our clients grow into their fullest, most alive selves, we can do more than mitigate negative or enervating thoughts: we can show them how to exercise their muscles for joy, movement, laughter, spontaneity, and pleasure.
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Dafna Lender, LCSW, is a certified international trainer and supervisor-consultant in both Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. The coauthor of Theraplay: The Practitioner’s Guide, she sees both children and families. Contact: email@example.com.
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