Play is a crucial form of human expression. In Playing and Reality, D.W. Winnicott writes "it is play that is universal, and that belongs to health: playing facilitates growth and therefore health; playing leads into group relationships; playing can be a form of communication in psychotherapy." Play is a way of communicating, and like other forms of communication, it is also an expression of health in relationships.
When I work with children, I enter into their world through play, learning about their unique worldview through the worlds they create in play. This might mean engaging with superhero fantasies to understand a complex web of feelings about power, control, change, violence, and morality. Or allowing a child the opportunity to reverse roles and "play the grown-up," in order to explore what it means to them to be a child. When children are not able to directly speak to their struggles, the language of play can be a powerful way to communicate.
With couples and families, I try to attune to their forms of playfulness with one another. Where are the spaces for creativity, joking, making-believe, and acting silly? Strengthening a relationship creates the conditions for play, and play can be a profound form of communication. Through play, we share not just new thoughts and ideas, but different ways of being with one another. When it breaks down, we feel rigid and on-edge. The defense of "I was just kidding!" can seem insincere and dismissive of our hurt, and what people describe as attempts to connect can feel more like attempts to injure. When previous forms of play have gone sour, I work with families and couples to re-establish the safety and trust needed to be vulnerable with one another. This might mean addressing unrecognized hurts, or figuring out how to interrupt patterns of distancing and pursuing. When we feel safe enough with the other person to let ourselves be vulnerable, the joyful space of play re-emerges.