The language of play. How children play themselves to health and into life

By Maria Luisa Nüesch, Gerda Salis Gross, June 2012

The language of the heart comes to expression neither in puzzles nor computer games nor in the Olympic Games. Maria Luisa Nüesch from the Verein Spielraum-Lebensraum e.V. play association and Gerda Salis Gross, Waldorf teacher and special needs teacher for play and play research, demonstrate how children assimilate experiences in free play.

Copyright: Marie-Luise Nüesch

When the heart is at play, relationships are involved. Children are particularly open in that respect in the first hour after birth. They seek the gaze of the mother and fully immerse themselves in it. This process is called “bonding” or also “mutual gazing”. The first hour of life is like an archetypal image of play with everything that this entails: calmness, lack of interruption, belonging, connectedness, security, love, contact. It is enveloped by a kind of magic, sacredness.

Original play builds on this experience. Ethnologists have found that children of indigenous peoples still living as gatherers do not have toys of any kind. The only play to be observed is romping around in the way that young animals play. This does not involve any competitive behaviour. Play – even when it is very intense – is always round and soft, loving. Fred Donaldson found this kind of play both among small children and wild animals and as a result became the playfellow of many people of every age throughout the world. Such original play contains the key to handling aggression and violence because the power of pure peace lives within it, Fred Donaldson says. Fear and mistrust, hardening and defensiveness arrive as soon as the idea of competition and mutual comparison enter the lives of children – and competition is something that pervades our society today through and through. Fear and aggression are major themes in children, particularly boys, as young as three and four. Because they are frightened, they are disruptive and cannot settle or enter into play.

Children in our time can only survive if they can consistently – on a daily basis if possible – return inwardly to this “first hour”. Can he or she find such a place of security, of unconditional acceptance? That is the basis on which original play is possible. “Intimate play” as it is described here has the same original and unique character. Often original play will metamorphose seamlessly into intimate play. A door to hidden inner spaces opens up.

Coming to terms with destiny

There is an increasing need to create protected spaces in which children feel so secure and safe that they can reveal their innermost being, can dare to be how they would really like to be. Some children require a long run-up for that. But suddenly they get into the flow of things and will play and play and play. Such play, which comes from inside, then also allows the language of the heart to come to expression. It is genuine and true and can only be played by this child at this particular time. That can be very moving.

Below we will describe two children, both two-and-a-half years old, who are linguistically very advanced and excessively alert.

One boy, whose mother went through a stressful pregnancy and who is restless and aggressive, nestles into a pile of teased wool. He is almost invisible. Once there, he remains there for an incredibly long period – for him. He clearly feels warm and secure. Then he pushes the wool into the crawling tunnel, crawls into it himself, fights his way through it like through a birth canal and, in a complete rotation, is “born”. He repeats the whole process twice more. His face is soft and relaxed. He looks a little exhausted but very satisfied. Has he made up for something? He was born by caesarean section.

I encounter his stressful start in life also in another one of his games. He crawls into our “house”, a cardboard box of the type used for removals with windows and a rounded door. Inside he can begin to come to rest. Usually he is in the habit of racing through the room like a hurricane, leaving a trail of chaos behind him, never persisting long with anything because if something does not work he abandons it.

Similarly he was unable to bring his birth to “conclusion”; at the time he was not guided or supported by passing through the birth canal and as a consequence he has difficulty in accepting boundaries, like many children born by caesarean section. At the same time such children are also inventive. For a long time it had not occurred to anyone to do anything with the house other than leave it standing on the floor. Only three children (all born by caesarean section) thought of turning the house completely upside down, opening it on top and at the bottom and using it as a tunnel, for example. So what did this child want to play?

He wanted his mother and myself to push him about in this house. He called it “walking about with me inside”. The child had tipped the house on its side so that a window was facing upwards. Now it occurred to the mother to put her hand through the opening at the top and reach in to the child. The response was a panicked reaction. “No, no, you mustn’t do that, nothing is allowed to come in at the top.” I had heard of another child who had reacted similarly in a play cave made of cloth; he was very worried that a hole would be made into the top of the cave, that suddenly bright light would shine in and a hand would reach in and pull him out. A precise description of a caesarean birth. We closed the window up properly, covered it with a cloth and reassured him that no one would open it here ever again.

A small boy, whose mother had also gone through an extremely difficult pregnancy with many, many ultrasound scans and fears of losing the child, liked to take off his long trousers so that his legs were nice and uncovered. Then he would wrap himself in a long rose coloured silk cloth. That is how he wanted to be rocked in the hammock, or his mother had to rock him on her lap and hum calming tunes for him. His play said: “I have to catch up on that: envelopment, protection, archetypal security”. Since then this equally restless child, who was unable to control himself, gradually became able to take small breaks by himself.

These few examples show that children can “tell a story” through play and come to terms with what is concerning them. Adults can understand such language of play if they open their hearts to it.

School children are not too old for play

I repeatedly hear mothers, fathers and, indeed, teachers, say: play? No doubt it’s important for the little ones, but not for the big ones. We experienced something quite different with school children.

One girl, who had been seriously neglected as an infant and repeatedly received no food for the whole of the day, displayed great difficulty in integrating into school. She found it almost impossible to adapt to group activities and undertake school work. She required individual support. At the age of twelve, she began in an individual lesson to play that she lived on an island. She continued this game over several weeks. She brought rucksacks and bags full of empty food containers from home: pizza boxes, jam jars, egg boxes, rice and chocolate packaging. She built a shop with those things and could then buy as much as she wanted from her island. She always had enough to eat. She made herself a comfortable home on the island and went to “school” from there (a table placed in front of the blackboard). Sometimes she was the teacher, sometimes the pupil. Released from all expectations, she was able to work the whole morning in a relaxed and concentrated manner: arithmetic, writing, reading – things she could only do to a very limited extent in the classroom.

Sometimes the language of play is easy to understand, as in the case of this girl. But frequently we do not understand it, not yet. It remains a riddle and not every riddle is easy to solve. It requires patience and sustained attention and, because it is the living riddle of a child, much love.


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