Children’s pretend play is a complex phenomenon. Pretend play involves a myriad of processes and behaviors that change from moment to moment. Does pretend play have important functions in child development, or is it simply something children engage in to pass the time—albeit while having fun? This is a central question in the field of child psychology today. It is an especially important question for child therapists.
Practitioners of a variety of theoretical persuasions use play in working with children. As of 1992, play in some form was used in child therapy by a majority of clinicians, according to Koocher and D’Angelo (1992), who stated that “play-oriented therapy remains the dominant and most enduring approach to child treatment… practiced by clinicians . Many therapists use play because it is a natural activity and form of communication of young children. Also, different theoretical schools stress the importance of pretend play in the therapy process. Psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, client-centered (nondirective) approaches, and cognitive-behavioral approaches as well, have proposed that change occurs in the child through the process of play.
What is the evidence for this proposition? The movement toward empirically supported treatments is gaining increasing momentum. It is crucial for the development of scientific principles of behavior change. Also, the managed care system will be looking to research for guidance about its policies. If play is to continue to be used as a major treatment modality, its effectiveness must be empirically demonstrated.
The main thesis of this book is that play has an important role in child development and is a major vehicle for change in child psychotherapy. Two extensive bodies of research literature address the functions of play, one focusing on pretend play and child development, one on the use of play in psychotherapy. These two literatures need to be integrated.
Play is involved in the development of many cognitive, affective, and personality processes that are important for adaptive functioning in children. Often, those who discuss the effectiveness of play in therapy ignore the accumulating knowledge base in developmental psychology. We have not drawn on this knowledge base in developing play intervention and play prevention programs that can be evaluated empirically.
On the other hand, insights from the theory and research of child therapists are not usually reflected in laboratory research on the role of play in child development. Only more effective two-way communication between clinicians and developmental researchers can enable the evolution of more refined developmentally based play interventions and the formulation of clear guidelines about the next logical steps for play research programs. Finally, the implications for the practice of play therapy of the research that has been done thus far need to be spelled out.
This book will attempt to accomplish these three goals: (a) to review and integrate what we have learned from research in the child development and play therapy areas, (b) to suggest directions for future studies, and (c) to present guidelines for practitioners based on current research findings. If we can construct a coherent picture of the current knowledge base, then we can understand more clearly what we should be doing as both researchers and practitioners.
This book also identifies play processes and proposes that play interventions should target specific play processes relevant to the goals of the intervention program. Play is especially important in the processing of emotions. This specific approach to the use of play in psychotherapy and prevention programs is a new one.
I hope that the book will inspire clinicians and researchers to play with ideas and build the empirical foundation for play intervention programs.
—Sandra W. Russ