Children can be a mystery.   Just like grown ups, they can be moody and have big feelings.  But with kids, it’s hard for them to articulate and understand what’s on their mind (And this is sometimes a challenge for us adults too.). Instead of telling us, they show us.  They act up, misbehave, have outbursts and shut down.   Fortunately, another way they show us is through their play.  Famous psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott have given us thoughtful ways to understand a child’s inner life.


There are two things going on when kids play:  

  1. They are expressing and fulfilling wishes and
  2. They are attempting to master the challenges of life.


Some might add one more thing:  Children play to avoid taking care of responsibilities.  But I would argue that this is also a way of expressing a wish.  –A wish to avoid responsibilities or difficult feelings.


Let’s take a look at wishes and young children.  When young children play, they act out all the things they want.  They wish they were the fastest. They wish to be brave and strong.  They wish to be loved, have fun and enjoy ideas, thoughts and interests.  Below are some examples of wishes you might see being played out in different age groups.


A 2 year old — As she pushes his wheels down the track, a 2 year old might be saying (If they could articulate it!), “It feels good that I can make things go after not being able to crawl/walk/move for so long!” Or, “I can make things go away and come back by pushing my car even though I can’t control when my mommy goes away or comes back.”  Or, “I can push my toy car to an imaginary ice cream store and have all the ice cream I want unlike real life when my parents only let me have that yummy treat once in a while.”


A 4 year old –He has a baby doll with him that he feeds and takes care of.  The doll cries and needs his diaper changed and the 4 year old competently changes the babydoll and feeds it.  It is as if to say, “I wish to be like my parents.” or “I wish to have a baby and take care of it.” Another 4 year old might insist on wearing a superhero costume 24/7, –saving pretend kittens and fighting the ‘bad guys.’  It is as if the child is saying, “I wish to be big, strong and unstoppable when in reality, I am small and not as strong as the adults in my life.”


Many wishes are positive and feel good. When enacting their wishes through play, children can have the wish in their play when they may not be able to have it in real life. Or, if they had the wish fulfilled in real life but it was fleeting, like a birthday party, they can make it last longer to play with the same theme.  


But what about wishes that are not acceptable to the child or/and to the grow up?  What if your child wishes her brother wasn’t around anymore so she can have her parents all to herself?   What if your child wishes to destroy something because it feels good? What if your child wishes to learn more about guns but their parents say guns are dangerous?  What if your child wishes mommy would go away so he can have daddy all to himself? Children use imaginary play to express these wishes and desires too. Forbidden wishes are expressed in play so they don’t have to be acted on in real life.   


Many parents worry that if their child is interested in violent themes or expresses forbidden wishes in play, they might be prone to violence or enacting the forbidden wish.  This is often not the case. There are many ways to interpret and understand a child’s play and it can be healthy to express forbidden wishes in play so it doesn’t have to be worked through in ‘real time.’   


For example, a parent sees their child using his Legos to play with guns and kill ‘bad guys.’  A parent might be tempted to stop gun play or pretend killing if they feel that guns are out of sink with their values and beliefs.  But what if the parent explores the play? Why do they have to use guns to get the bad guys? Perhaps the child says that guns are cool.  A parent might say, “I wonder if you are curious about how guns work but you also know that they are dangerous and they can hurt people?”


A parent could also ask the child, “Who are these bad guys and why must they be defeated?  Is it true that these ‘bad guys’ are all bad?” Sometimes, a child sees their parent as ‘bad’ for setting limits with them and they are figuring out these difficult feelings and expressing them in their play.  Other times, children are grappling with ‘bad guys’ because they are dealing with parts of themselves that they see as ‘bad.’ Wouldn’t it be easier to simply ‘kill off parts of ourselves’ that we find unacceptable such as jealousy, envy, greed or anger?  A child has to deal with being slower than anyone who is older than them. They have to grapple with not knowing a lot about the world compared to others. They are small and can’t defend themselves. Some of these experiences of the self are difficult to master and one way to master them is to express wishes to defeat and understand these difficulties through their play.


Mastery is the second reason children play.  They must master the world around them, their bodies and their conflicting internal experience.  Forbidden wishes are examples of conflicting internal wishes.  Children may wish to hurt/destroy/kill but they also don’t wish to hurt/disappoint/destroy the person that cares for them and that they care about.  They also know that it’s against the law or against their parent’s wishes to act on such things. The work of a play therapist or parent is to help a child become more at ease with their forbidden wishes,verbalize them, and to learn that a wish is very different than an action.  When you can identify and express a forbidden wish verbally, you are less likely to act on it inappropriately. It is the healthy person that can say, “I am so envious of your new toy/car/marriage. I wish I had that, but I wouldn’t want to take those things from you!”  This is hard for many adults to say or acknowledge and it is a long term goal for a child to develop such emotional strength.


What else are children trying to master when they play?  At an early age, toddlers play by grabbing, moving, crawling and walking.  They are trying to master the function of their bodies.   As a child ages, they continue to master their bodies (How fast can I run?  How far can I throw? How creative of a story can I write? I can cook like daddy too!).  


They are also copying what grown ups and kids do around them in an attempt to process and master how things work.  ‘My dad puts the pot on the stove.  I will put a pot on my toy stove. I will stir things just like daddy.’  They may not know why or exactly what they are doing, but they will copy those around them.  Why? So they can figure out what’s happening. Through this repetitive play, they will master understanding of the world and how it works.  Eventually, little by little their brains will figure out, ‘Oh! My daddy is making my yummy oatmeal!’ Then later, ‘Oh, my yummy oatmeal is warm because he turns on that strange fire and I think that fire makes it hot because daddy keeps saying “Hot! Hot!.”’  And even later, the child is thinking, ‘He stirs the oatmeal so it won’t burn like that time daddy forgot to stir and there was a yucky smell!’ As the child ages, they might master the steps to making oatmeal and play them out on their play stove. ‘First I turn the stove on, then I pour the oatmeal in.  Then I add the water. Then I stir. Then it’s ready. Then I blow on it and then I eat it!’ It takes a great deal of observation and study to understand how the world works.  Children are essentially tiny scientists and the world is their lab.  They will repeat and repeat tasks in play to understand them just like a scientist will retest something until they have reliable results. The play is repetitive and, to adults, sometimes boring because you’ve already mastered making oatmeal!  But to a child, it is mind boggling and very perplexing.


Mastering how things work in the world around them is one thing, but mastering how rules work is another more complicated matter.  Rules change, there’s exceptions based on situation, time, age and more.  Children are thrown into a very complicated world. For example, sometimes a parent lets a child throw things and sometimes they don’t.  Imagine a child thinking, ‘Why is my mommy so happy when I throw a ball but she yelled when I threw sand?’ ‘Why can’t I throw sand? It feels good and I like it! That kid nearby just made a silly face when I did that. How funny!’  ‘Why did my mommy say “Sand in boy’s eyes? I threw sand up (Except they didn’t but they don’t have the memory, fine motor skills, awareness of things around them to know otherwise because of their age.).’


Children are trying to master the social and behavioral expectations around them as noted above, but they are also trying to master scary things.  Are toy cars and dolls yelling at each other in your child’s play just like their mommies yelled at each other the night before?  Are toys having a hard time sharing just like the child is having a hard time sharing with their sibling or in preschool? Are their toys suddenly going bonkers and knocking all the other toys over just like the child becomes overtired and gets ‘wild and reckless’ instead of sleepy?  Are the toys disappearing just like mommy disappeared and didn’t come home again? A child’s play is a representation of how they experience the world and make sense of the world. The more traumatic and scary their actual world is the more traumatic and scary their play will often be.    


Child’s play can often be confusing and puzzling because they are not just working on one thing at a time.  They are working on and thinking about multiple things.  Psychoanalysts refer to this as multiple determination. If you observe the themes in your child’s play and find it confounding, know that your child is likely feeling the same way!  There is so much for them to understand about themselves and the world. Your job is to play along with them and let them take the lead!   Ask them questions, be curious and be their lab assistant. Help them carry out their experiments in their play and, when you’re able, give a voice to your observations to help them understand what they are struggling with.  


A final note — A child that has a relatively calm and structured life, will still have much to work through and master.  A child with trauma and a lot of family stress will have much more to understand and process. But the amazing thing is that children are wired to play and work through these things.  Even if your family has a history or trauma, abuse or significant stressors, kids can process them and work through them with a trusted adult.


In her book, Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed stated that her mother dying made her a better person.  Hard times can be like that for people. If you are worried or feel guilty about your hard times and how they have affect your child, I get it.  But you should know that it is the repair work and the efforts you make to get help, talk about it with your children and help them understand and give voice to what happened that will ultimately build a more resilient and emotionally intelligent child.  Your child will be able to say, “I know hard times, but I am stronger for it and I know I can deal if something else hard comes my way. I also know that I can trust that adults will help me.”

About the author:  Stacie Degeneffe, LCSW, is in private practice in Emeryville, CA.  She works with adults, children and families.