Symbolism in the playroom? How does that work? Isn’t Play Therapy just playing?
Symbolism can be found throughout all aspects of our lives. We find symbols in the arts, in literature, and of course, in the Play Therapy playroom. Within the safe space of the playroom and the therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the child, symbolism is what can help to bring about healing in the playroom. Here’s how it works.
If we really want to delve into symbolism and why it affects us so deeply, we should discuss Jung’s Archetypes. But I’m trying to keep things simple here, so let’s talk about symbolism in film. Have you ever watched a scene in a film and felt so moved by what you are seeing and hearing that you find yourself in tears without having the words to describe why you are crying? A very simple example of this is the use of the colour red in “The Sixth Sense” (M. Night Shyamalan) to represent a connection between the real world and the other world. I get goosebumps every time I watch this film, because when I see the red balloon, or the red doorknob, I know something is happening, but I just can’t find the words to say exactly what is happening. It’s a feeling that I have no words for. I am moved.
Symbolism alludes to something deeper, something more. It’s a literal concept which suggests something figurative. It speaks to our conscious mind while at the same time, waking our unconscious mind, moving us, causing shifts, and touching on hidden memories within us.
When this happens in a safe therapeutic space, within a strong therapeutic relationship, real healing can take place. As a Play Therapist, I am trained to stay attuned to the child in the room, so that I know when they are working on a conscious level, and when they are tapped into their unconscious mind, working with symbols and metaphor. For children (indeed for anyone), this happens naturally as soon as they start playing with the equipment in the room.
Everything in the playroom is carefully chosen for its symbolism and its therapeutic purpose. The swords and shields are no exception and I find the symbolism of these objects quite fascinating. If we look to mythology and history for how the sword and shield have been used, many different texts and artworks describe these two objects being used together, the one for defence and the other for offence. In terms of how one would use the sword and shield as symbols for how one interacts with the world; the sword pushes forward into the world, and the shield receives blows from the world.
When a child picks up the shield or sword (or both), I start taking mental notes about how they play with these symbols and how it makes me feel. Do they ask me to join them in play? Do they want to battle against me, or do they ask me to join their team against a common foe? Do they focus more on offence or defence? Do they attack or do they hide? I note the feelings I feel while we are playing – fear, anger, joy. I might reflect something back to the child if I feel its appropriate. By doing this, I am acting like a mirror, showing the child their process in a different light.
What do I do with all the little mental notes, you ask? Well, I put them together to make some inferences about how the child might see themselves and the world around them. I track changes in the child’s play over time and I discuss these changes and my feelings with my supervisor to get a different perspective. Then, I continue to give the child a confidential, unjudgmental space to work through their unconscious process.
I can never really know what is happening for a child while they play (as it’s my own interpretation) but using symbolism, I can have a glimpse into what they could be working through. It helps me to stay attuned to them, to reflect their process and to show them empathy and acceptance. This, in turn, helps a child to heal.