Using play at the Mulberry Bush School. By Rita Baptista

The following essay was an assignment written for our Foundation Degree by Rita Baptista:

With reference to relevant literature, in what ways do you consider play, whether formal or informal (or both) important to the development of the children and young people you work with.

This article proposes to discuss theories relating to both formal and informal play and its importance to the development of the children who I work with at the Mulberry Bush School (MBS). By formal play I am referring to adult led play, which is usually more planned and rule centered. When discussing informal play, I will be focusing on child led play which is unstructured and spontaneous. I’ve chosen to include some examples of my reflective journal to illustrate how play is paramount in my practice on a daily basis. All the vignettes about the children described in this article have been anonymized to assure privacy and confidentiality.

The Mulberry Bush School is a residential school that offers therapeutic care to emotionally troubled and traumatized children between the ages of 5-12.  At the Mulberry Bush School ‘we provide emotional holding as a “24h curriculum” for children with severe attachment disorders’ (Diamond, 2013, p.133).  My discussion of play in this essay relates to this group of children and I will attempt to emphasize how play can also contribute in a substantial way in permitting children to cope with trauma.

As part of the recruitment process, my first experience at the MBS was a visiting day spent with children and staff. One of the guidelines I got from one senior staff member at the start of the day was “you are more than welcome to play with children”. From that day on, play is always one of the essentials elements of my practice.

There are many significant theories and authors who have studied play, but I would like to focus on how play can allow children to emotionally grow. Moritz Lazarus (1883) believes play is a way of relaxing from the pressures of daily life. I entirely agree that this is a central part of play, to allow children to relax and switch off from reality.

Winnicott (1971) argues that play is essential to the therapeutic experience for children. He believes that through play, children can learn to connect their inner world and their outer reality. Winnicott mentions that the child makes this connection with the support of a transitional object; one which is associated with a particular experience i.e. a teddy bear, scarf or blanket. The steady comprehension of the real world contrasted with the child’s inner world is an essential developmental step for children. Some of the children at MBS might still be discovering how to handle this concept and thus play can assist; allowing them to engage with and explore their outer world without fright or distress.

Freud (1901) believed that children are able to express aggressive or sexual impulses in a safe way through play. In Freud´s perspective, play was something cathartic that could contribute to children being able to deal with traumatic events. He believed play made it possible for children to move on from their difficult past and support their emotional and even moral growth.

One of the most central aspects of my work at MBS consists in understanding childrens’ behaviour as communication. I believe it is essential for me to be able to comprehend the potential communication behind the child’s play, so that I can support the child understanding their past and understanding themselves. Play is a brilliant way for a child to communicate without it feeling overwhelming or being challenged to express difficult feelings through words.

Melanie Klein continued and complemented Freud’s theory in her own work. Klein assumed that toys would offer children the vocabulary to express themselves. Klein alleged that ‘in order to understand the internal world we need to pay attention to what the child is expressing in symbolic terms’ (in UWE 2007). This theory is predominantly important for the children I work with, who have experienced emotional trauma, and who may find it extremely hard to intentionally think about and express past experiences. According to this way of thinking, which I agree with, play is both therapy and a means of expression.

Isaacs (2013, p.46) clarifies that ´if we were asked to mention one supreme psychological need of the young child, the answer would have to be “play” – the opportunity for free play in all its various forms. Play is the child’s means of living, and of understanding life’.

This is an important point as a child’s ability to play has such a strong correlation with their social and emotional growth. Children under the age of two years old generally act irrespective of others, discovering their environments through solitary play. This progresses as they approach the age of three where they have limited interaction with others while still immersed in their own task. Between the ages of three and four, children more freely play with each other. Finally, from the age of four upwards, children begin participating in co-operative play, learning to consider other people and defining their social skills. For a child to be able to play, and progress through these stages of play, they need to feel relaxed and to be in a safe environment. For many traumatised children this safe environment will have been lacking. This therefore inhibits their ability to explore their surroundings through play, preventing them from progressing through stages of play that would otherwise have occurred naturally with age.

Barton, Gonzalez and Tomlinson (2012, p.162) observe that ‘play has been referred to as children´s work. On the one hand, we do not think of play as work, but for children it is the way they form relationships, work things out, learn and develop skills´.

8th March 2017: …Such a playful day today…all days at work are playful, in my perspective, because children are playful and so I am…but today, without the usual meetings, all I did for 11consecutive hours was play with children. One of the activities was a walk in the mud. An eight years old girl was walking her dog through the rainy ponds (the dog was a tree branch) and without an apparent reason I asked her “What is play for you?” “Play can be a stone in a pond”, she replied straight away. She then looked at me and added “all work is play for me” and she looked at the dog “do you want some water, you must be thirsty”.

Different children have specific preferences for play and the same child might like different ways of playing according to different times and contexts. In my work I witness informal play on a daily basis, which is led by the child and is filled with imagination. Sometimes adults can join in this play, following the child´s lead. Generally I find it particularly important observing or being involved in children´s spontaneous play in order to be able to better understand at what emotional stage they are, as many of the children I work with have missed stages in their development. Subsequently a suitable kind of play can be encouraged by the adult to support the child to flourish at each developmental level. In our playroom I have had situations where some of the 10 years old children I work with still use a dummy (pacifier) crawl in the ground, like to be held and rocked like babies and enjoy to paint with their hands. In these situations, children benefit from that regressive play as MCMahon (1992, p.146) argues, ‘It can help to restore missed sensory experiences’. These sensory experiences can also contribute to children being able to regulate themselves and better manage simple tasks such as brushing teeth or putting their shoes on, which sometimes they cannot cope with.

15th December 2016: …Today at settling time I got a phone call from one of the other houses in school: “Can you please come over for a few minutes? C [child] is asking for your magic potion, whatever that is”, said the staff member who was on the phone. Although I often use the metaphor of magic potion when working with children, I understood straight away what it was expected from me on that moment.

One month ago that child was finding it difficult to settle at night and he was taking same space out of the house, because he was disrupting the other children. When asked to support him, I noticed he was with very “sleepy eyes”, so I told him “I have something that I think it might help you”. I pretended I took something out of my pocket and I whispered “this this magic powder was made on purpose to make children sleep” and I sprinkled it over him. C was looking at me, we were smiling at each other, and slowly he closed his eyes. I kept on whispering “I´m going outside to shake your coat because it is holding all your worries and then I will carry you in my arms to your bedroom”. C quickly retorted with eyes closed “I´m too heavy”. “Without worries you won´t be that heavy”, I said. When I tucked C into bed I waited 5 minutes and he didn´t open his eyes. Through his breathing, I could notice he was sleeping.

So, one month later C was asking me for the “magic potion”. I approached him and I did exactly the same routine. And it worked!

Part of the informal play is what we call by make-believe play. Through make-believe children can deal with some of their frustrations. As Scarlett, Naudeau, Salonius-Paternak and Ponte (2005, p.53) explain, ‘think of what life would be like if you had so many powerful wishes that could not be adequately expressed in words and that could never be satisfied, or at least not satisfied for a very long time’. So, in order to realize unrealizable wishes, children play. In play, they can walk dogs even without having one and they can be sprinkled with magic potion.

Formal play is chosen by some children who like concrete rules to follow. In my work, when I am involving or observing children playing in a formal way, it is generally by playing games. Games provide a structure, a method for social interaction and consist of a shared language between the players. ‘It is rewarding to manage to play a game in an acceptable way, we become part of a group of players, with a sense of belonging (Chesner, 1995, p.62)’. Laanela and Sacks (2015, p.40) add that ‘a game could be an exploration of a phenomenon or a problem that has to be solved’. By playing games children practice their concentration and are granted a shared experience of fun and challenge. When playing games with the children I work with, I usually notice than they also find that the structure of games reinforced by me can be very containing and permit them to feel safe enough to play.

I experienced various times when a child is disturbed by some negative feelings which make it especially difficult to follow the routine (for example, going for a shower or going to class) and by doing some juggling or running 3 times around the garden while I am counting loud the minutes it takes, it will clearly improve the way the child feels, in order to be able to follow the routines. As Barton, Gonzalez and Tomlinson (2012, p.166) transmit ‘taking part in an activity that gives an opportunity for physical mastery can be very restorative and help to balance negative emotional feelings’.

I consider formal play, an excellent opportunity to develop my relationship with children at my work who struggle to trust that adults can keep them safe. I work to build relationships with children that allow them feel trust and a level of containment which is important for them to function in their daily lives. Play has a crucial role in the building of these relationships.

18th November 2016: … Today at the ball pool, when I was playing a ball game with C [child], she asked me to lift her and to “throw” her into the ball pool. I feel the need to mention that this child, a couple of weeks ago used to do her best to be as far as possible from me, particularly if it would involve physical contact.


This is one of the multiple examples of my practice where I feel that if I had not been able to play with children, it might not have been possible for me to build a positive relationship with them. This situation also illustrates how play offered a secure way for the child to enjoy a positive experience with me in a manner that felt natural and relaxed, with the focus being on the child playing, instead of actively intending to build a relationship with me. According to this matter Schaefer (1993, p.12) observes ‘the role of play in facilitating a positive relationship is related to the nature of playful interactions that are fun filled and concerned with enjoyment rather than achievement’. About the same subject Malchiodi and Crenshaw (2014, p.25) complement that ‘the most effective way to build an attachment or enhance a relationship with a child is to create safe, trusting, and gratifying experiences with an adult, and play is an effective and natural medium to facilitate the process’.

I consider that a playful attitude is part of my personality, even if I am not at work and not alongside children. I believe that my playful attitude is something children who I work with notice, even before they know my name. And most of the times, I feel a connection in both directions (myself and the child) straight away, just by smiling and being playful. I strongly agree with Barton, Gonzalez and Tomlinson (2012, p. 165) when they say that ‘a playful attitude is one that encourages relationships to be fun and acknowledges the children´s interests and personalities in an affirming way’.

This accentuates the significance of play for the particular children at MBS, in supporting to overcome their agonizing experiences. As West (1996, p.13) explains, ‘play is the child´s form of self-therapy through which confusions, anxieties and conflicts are often worked through. Through the safety of play children can try out their own new ways of being’.

To finalize this piece of work, and only because the word count is showing me that I need to, I want to reiterate a point made by Howard and Mcinnes (2013, p.39), that ‘irrespective of professional play background and theoretical understanding, all play practitioners share an intuitive belief that play benefits children’. Play offers individuals an endless sense of freedom because when we are playing our creativity can fly wherever we want. Moreover, ‘it is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living’ (Winnicott, 1971, p.87). Furthermore, ‘playing is when we become most alive and most human (…) supporting many opportunities to play makes perfect sense, in childhood and throughout life, we should keep playing’ (Else, 2014, p.154).

In conclusion, both informal and formal play provide a safe platform for children to experience the world, explore and grow. It provides them with a space to connect with others and develop social skills and relationships. Considering the children I work with, I´m convinced that play has a positive impact on their physical, mental and emotional development and it is in itself a healing process.



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