Continued from Part 1: Helping Things Fall Apart, the Paradox of Play »

In Part 2 of our interview with Dennis McCarthy, author of the new book A Manual of Dynamic Play Therapy, he shares the ideas behind the book; his own personal philosophy of care; and how using materials like sand and clay in play therapy can help children explore their healthy – and very necessary – creative and destructive impulses.

Can you tell us about your new book and its underlying thesis?

Book cover: A Manual of Dynamic Play TherapyThe new book describes the evolution of my thinking about play therapy and what makes it a dynamic process and is perhaps as much a manifesto as it is manual. I am concerned about the dearth of play in schools, in homes and in child psychotherapy settings, as its power and necessity become ever clearer to me. Long ago I stopped needing to affirm the efficacy of play in my own thinking. I knew it worked. This allowed me the freedom to consider what is happening when a child’s shattered life is made whole, or when a dysregulated child is suddenly able to live within their own skin with more ease. I have seen a continuum in the use of play as therapy that spans all childhood problems.

The fundamental issue seems to me to help children not be afraid of themselves – i.e. the emotions, impulses and energy that they must reconcile to be in relationship and to function in this world. This aliveness or what I refer to as “our bigness” becomes all the more difficult to tolerate and regulate when there is trauma, neurological or learning issues or a lack of parental nurturance.

What I observe happening, and what I also provoke in children’s play, is a “falling apart” and reorganization of the basic structure of their play that I think is the act of metamorphosis itself. This falling apart happens in the service of the ego and is thus curative rather than destructive. What I am referring to is not de-compensation but rebirth. The book looks at the paradox in play that allows for and even encourages this falling apart just as it attempts to solidify how the child feels. The idea of paradox is the central tenet of the book. Embracing paradox as necessary for real change to occur is both frustrating and liberating. The book is about this paradoxical process.

I watch children build worlds in the sand and then I see them implode. Perhaps not right away. But eventually the structure collapses and then re-forms in a new more and functional way. Today a very impulsive child, after smashing a lump of clay over and over again, made a very complex world in the sand filled with all the things he was afraid of. He stood before it triumphantly. Then just before he left he made it all fall apart, and quickly put the lid on the sandbox. “Let’s see what the next kid thinks of that!” he proclaimed as he left. This young child is struggling to regulate himself and to learn how to be relational with other children. He wants desperately to connect but his own impulses get in the way. And the only way forward for him is this process of making and unmaking, which expresses and provokes the changes in his own psychic structure.

How does the book reflect your general philosophy about care?

Some lines come to mind from a catalogue for the traveling exhibit of “The Hundred Languages of Children” based on the Reggio Project in Reggio Emiglia in Italy, which teaches preschoolers in an arts based approach. The original title of the exhibit was “The Eye, If it Leaps Over the Wall”, based on the idea that the child’s mind “begins to see, to reason and to renew itself to the extent that it is able to leap over the wall…the wall of the banal, the rhetorical, of conformity, the wall of inertia and official reticence.” I believe in this wholeheartedly!

I think play and play therapy allow children’s eyes and hearts and souls to “leap over the wall”. This leap can be profoundly healing. Often the wall gets knocked down, literally, as the child struggles to imagine more freely, to reorganize their defenses and their psychic structure to allow more movement, more articulation of self. This idea of leaping is at the heart of play and brings to mind the familiar quote from Plato in which he likens play to the need for all creatures to leap, to defy but not escape the laws of gravity, to test the leeway of life and learn how to land resiliently. The imagination, often the vehicle of this leap, is also able to express and transform otherwise unspeakable and intolerable emotions.

What are some common obstacles in understanding and applying dynamic play therapy to practice? How can your book help?

There are several obstacles. With rare exceptions, the academic and professional world doesn’t support a dynamic approach to play therapy (or often the use of play in therapy at all). There is an ever-greater thrust to pathologize the child and the family and this is often where the therapist/therapy stops: diagnosis leads to stasis. This needn’t be so. We can and should have an understanding of what is going on in the child and in their life, but unless we then engage the child in real play, we have not accomplished much. Children need to be allowed to be children and speak their language not ours.

By and large I find parents very supportive of my approach even though their children sometimes come home and announce: “I chopped dad’s head off with a guillotine today!” In fact most parents welcome this release, in part because it often alleviates rather quickly the symptoms that brought the child to therapy. I think most parents, once they have admitted that something is wrong, can readily relate to the need to draw monsters, the need to express negative aggressivity. They too were once children with great passions roiling inside. They too still feel at odds with what lives in them that has not yet been freed.

Secondly, the therapist must do his or her own therapeutic work. This is a must if we are to engage a child in falling apart play, or play that allows for and even encourages negative discharge. We don’t need to have resolved all of our own issues but we need to be at least engaged in the process of grappling with them. If we are unwilling to explore and interact with what lives in us that we don’t know, we should not invite the child to delve into themselves either, largely because they will be alone in the process. They need us with them as they negotiate the forces of life that are stymied in them. Our own inner exploration can be very synchronistic with the work that happens in the play space. Children seem to riff on what we are digging up in ourselves, especially in the realm of charged images. Yet they use these images for themselves.

It also helps to have an understanding of the centrality of aggression in the forming of relationships, which the book explores, and to not mistake aggression in the service of the ego and health with real violence. I think the use of negative discharge in play must happen with levity and within the context of a relationship.

It helps to have mentors, even if they are no longer alive. Winnicott is a great proponent of aggression as are Lorenz, Whitmont, Reich and Lowen. These psychological innovators have made great contributions to our understanding of what is entailed in becoming a person.

Why was it important to include a chapter on play materials that facilitate healthy aggression?

The materials we use are in many ways the vehicles of change, the vehicles of play. They not only allow the child to better express and articulate themselves but they also provide a buffer from the raw intensity of the feelings being expressed. I use clay, sand, blocks, paper and movement as the main materials in aggressive play. It is my knowing that these materials work and can work safely, and my understanding of how they work that helps the child feel that I am in control so they can let go. I become the ground wire of the experience until they establish their own. I hold the space, so to speak, while they play with shedding their dysfunctional defense system, replacing it with a more functional one that is less rigid or less porous, depending on the child.

The materials used in the process have a great potency. They become more than just clay or sand. In the charged process of play therapy they are raw materials of the self. I am still surprised by this after all these years. A lump of clay is just a lump of clay until the child, within the context of the therapeutic relationship and with the need to do so, can make the clay become a substance that expresses and transforms the self. How amazing! What awe that inspires! The techniques I use are less important than the materials. I am fond of some of these techniques since they are not only fun, but work. But when I simply sit with a child by a lump of clay they may do amazing things with it regardless of what I advise, out of inner necessity and the creative urge that exists in all of us. The materials, the relationship, the need all combine as a catalyst.

That said there are certain materials that by their very nature allow for disorganization and a re-organization. Sand, clay and blocks in particular allow for this. In my first meeting with them, I often introduce children to the various materials and how they might use them to express aggression. I urge them to consider what feels best to them, what satisfies their bodies most. Children always have a clear preference.

Part 3: Dynamic Play Therapy in Action »

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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