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Psychoanalysis and Play

Updated: Jun 27

Notes using Donald Winnicott, Melanie Kelin and Sigmund Freud

Notes on Play in Psychoanalysis
Notes on Play in Psychoanalysis

What is play, you might ask...

I know & don’t know either. (that’s basically what you can say about anything in Psychoanalysis to sound bougie)

But let's start somewhere- so, what is play for you?

(sigh! the joy of asking awkward questions to put someone on the spot… )

However, isn’t that the charm of Psychoanalysis- to divulge us into gazing at the most ordinary page of our story with the most fascination? Like a child watching a leaf fall from the tree, surrendered in a moment of both wonderment and excess!


Aghhh.. what would I give to be lost in that kind of private play… wouldn’t you?

In case you didn't notice, I'm pledged to understanding Psychoanalysis as a play with words- as an art of storytelling (Adam Phillips), an art of listening (Salman Akhtar), an art of interpretation (Freud).


Anyhoo, the note of appreciation for Psychoanalysis’s own childlike wonderment aside (although I don’t think we’d be asking this question if it wasn’t for it…), when did you actually stop playing?



Does someone know why we're split when it comes to writing or thinking about our own (dis)embodied play? Why do we have to include a century-old discourse to talk about it? And is it even play if a thinker has to think it?


This piece, despite my attempts at the opposite, is coming from a place of both curiosities, & deep sadness. A sadness reckoning an almost strategic, developmental loss.

And then to write about curiosity & play, in a playful way, well, something's amiss.

So let me do the easier bit… let's make do with the concept of play psychoanalytically.


Yeah well, I see you know a writing on play cannot be done without Winnicott, & Freud, & Bowlby and who not, and I know you’re watching how I would (fail to) compress this life-size work on play in a paragraph…


But, a girl can, & must try.



It might surprise you, but in psychoanalysis, play is not seen as a leisure activity, it is not even an attribute of the child, it is not in the act of it- rather, play is a form of communication and expression that provides insights into the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and conflicts.

Shocker, right?


Let's just prep our floaties as we jump into the shallow end of its Psychoanalytic iterations now.


Something Old: So, to start from the beginning- let’s take a whimsical stroll into Winnicott's microcosm, where the concept of play is never just a child's pastime, but a working-through of the unabsorbed, overwhelming reality.

Yes, literally, Winnicott believed that children play to master anxiety… (stay with this thought a second more, and you’ll agree).


Now, imagine you're the little you (disobedient, I’d prefer), brandishing your toy truck (gender neutral!). As you cater to yourself in that make-believe worlds, you're not just passing the time—you're crafting your reality. In Winnicott's world, play isn't just a distraction; it's the theatre where the unconscious scripts unfold, where impulses are enacted, where sensual gratifications are allowed.


But here's where it gets juicy- for him, play isn't just for kids. Winnicott saw play as the ultimate antidote to the drudgery of adulthood where inhibitions & vulnerabilities are unveiled.



Something New: Now, have you heard of Jill Miller? No, I’m not just putting common syllables together, she’s a real person, in fact a student of Anna Freud. 

It’s interesting we’ve learnt to be versed with the old more than the new, the alive. What does that say about play?!


Anyhow, now picture that tiny (still disobedient, I hope) you, are handed a blank paper & a bunch of broken crayons. That’s classic Miller- compelling a canvas to invite the exploration of thoughts and emotions through various mediums, from art and music to movement and storytelling.


Why I feel she belongs in the category of the ‘new’ is her attitude of inviting the patient to cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity about the self. She ascribes certain features of play to the work of the therapeutic alliance-

  • the symbolism in play

  • advent of spontaneity

  • transference- countertransference

  • and the therapist’s attunement, to pin a few.


So somewhere between all of it, play becomes a therapeutic tool for the pre-analytic parts of the self.



Something Blue: Let’s put a few men adjacent to each other on this.

For Freud, play came to be pleasure seeking (a shift he made from seeing it as wish fulfilling); for Erikson (1963), play forms an ‘emotional laboratory’ in which the child learns to master his environment and come to terms with the world; for Piaget play is a movement from functional to symbolic order- that is, it carries within the capacity to symbolise objects for them to be manipulated as metaphors for the reality.


And one can go in any direction from here, but what remains intact throughout is the lucid understanding of play in the psychic organisation. It is one of those rare concept explained simply & repeatedly in Psychoanalysis (pheww), and that is not to say it’s not exponentially complex, it is only to say that play holds in itself an undebatable element of narcissistic mastery over the (primal) preoccupation with the self & the object.

Yeah, quite blue, right?



Something Borrowed: Time we borrow play. What a strange thing to say, right? Neither can one borrow time, nor play, and yet the unconscious dares to string them together in a singular breath.

I believe that’s what’s amiss. 

What I mean is, “I hope all my readers are going to fall under the spell of some kind of curiosity. Reading a novel without curiosity is a deadly process- we all remember it from high school” (Ian McEwan).


That no matter how much this piece makes sense, logically, it can't render itself a play-mate, when the internal deficit of curiosity is unaddressed. 


P.S. I love ending on random tones of feelings, and while it would be cliché to call that play now, I’d like to believe that it is… my version of play.


P.P.S. What’s your version?






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