The Universal Language of Play

Ellen Smithey, MA, ATR, EMDR   | December 2021

With the winter solstice approaching on December 21st, it seems we as a society are grappling with the possibility of change when it comes to our traditional celebrations of light and warmth around this time of year. It is fascinating in that the welcoming of the return of the sun and longer days ahead is celebrated in every single culture and country in their own special ways. However, this year not only are we connected through celebration, but we are all connected by the travesty of the pandemic and its limitations. This time of year has always held a special place for me and I began to wonder, what about this year will remain normal?

Whether you celebrate Yule, Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or customs like gift giving, story and fortune telling, Father Christmas or Santa Claus, baking, bonfires, or outdoor lights…There is similarity among all of these traditions. They are all routed in imagination and play. The idea of play can have so many meanings. When you close your eyes and think play, you may envision setting up your dollhouse as a child, always in the same way, reenacting the same story line each time. Or perhaps your version of play is tackling that cookie recipe you have been wanting to try, getting messy with the flour and stealing a chocolate chip. Telling an imaginative tale or participating in ceremony is even a form of play. So how can all of these different activities be considered play?

When we engage in a form of play, we actually build new connections in our brain. This is why play is so important for children, especially during the crucial developmental years of 0 to 5, because the areas of their brains that focus on communication are not yet fully developed. Through acts of play, children are actually able to communicate their thoughts, process their emotions, and build neural pathways to set them up for successful life skills, decreased anxiety, and problem solving.

Adults need time to play just as much as children. Although the frontal lobe is fully developed around age 26, the adult brain is fully capable of change at any age. This is referred to as neuroplasticity, and it’s the ability to allow our brain to grow and reorganize. Whether it is taking extra care in the wrapping of the gift for your loved one, ice skating for the first time since your teens, or role playing a snowwoman in your child’s imaginative winter scene, adults can benefit from the decreases in stress and anxiety play has to offer.

It’s hard to make time for play, especially around this time of year where it seems like our anxiety stems from running around trying to get things done in time. What would it be like to have scheduled, structured time, once per week for yourself or your child to have uninterrupted time to play with someone who actively listens and participates, judgement free? It sounds like the essence of play therapy. Working with a play therapist guarantees uninterrupted time for self-exploration in a space that feels comfortable and welcoming. For children, especially those who may be experiencing the divorce of their parents, anxiety, or childhood trauma, working with a play therapist allows them to express their feelings through activities their brains can comprehend. Play therapists are specifically trained in providing play-based activities and an environment for you or your child to feel safe building those connections in the brain.

I take solace in the thought of everyone around the world creating, playing, and imagining in their own unique ways this year with the only aspect of change being the positive change of our brains. When many of us will find ourselves with less obligations, less family members surrounding us, and less normality than usual this year, I encourage you to continue and honor your own personal traditions of play. Happy neurocognitive restructuring!

Ellen Smithey is an Art Therapist and Play Therapist specializing in trauma informed approaches across the lifespan. She is certified in Sand Tray Therapy and has been providing art and play therapy for over five years. To read more about art and play therapy or Ellen’s work, check out her website ellensmithey.com. If you feel Ellen may a perfect match for your child, please reach out to ellen@drkendalandassociates.com to discuss individual therapy sessions.