IPT Book Reviews

Title: Children at Play
Editors: Arietta Slade and Dennie Palmer Wolf
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1994

Oxford University Press
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$49.95 (c)

In this 313-page book, the editors attempt to bring together psychoanalytic theory and formulations about children's play and developmental psychology's attempts to understand children's play. The authors of the 14 chapters are clinicians practicing psychoanalytic play therapy and developmental psychologists. The clinicians simply accept Freudian concepts as accurate while the developmentalists do not attend to the issue of empirical support for Freudian personality theory. The result is a blend of anecdotal case studies used to support psychoanalytic concepts and treatment and a more limited reporting of studies with some effort to structure independent and dependent variables. This is an heroic task and the editors and chapter authors succeed to a degree. But the tension between the two approaches still remains.

There is agreement, however, on the basic nature and function of children's play as social construction of meaning. There is a recognition that play is symbolic and pretense. There is also acceptance of the fact that children's cognitive capacities do go through a developmental process and that their play behaviors cannot exceed the cognitive capacities available at the time of the play. In the more psychoanalytic chapters, the anecdotal evidence in most cases is from children who had been in psychoanalytic play therapy for long periods. There does not appear to be any recognition that the prior experience is a learning history and that the pattern of play reinforced by the therapist is the most likely behavior to be observed after several months of therapy.

For those interested in children's play, possibly the most fascinating finding reported is Cicchetti, Beeghly, and Weiss-Perry's report on their study of the play of Downs Syndrome children. Although there is a delay in time, they report that the patterns of development in play are the same as those in normal children. Mental age has a determinative effect on play behaviors. Another finding of interest is Tingley's discussion of the effect on children's play of mothers with affective illness. Again, although there is an impact, a mother's psychopathology apparently does not decrease the ability of children to engage in play that is a social construction. Throughout the book there are many insightful and compassionate concepts advanced about children, their amazing development, their problems, and the ways in which caring adults can support the fullest and richest development of individual children.

For those who must understand the potential role of children's play behavior in the legal system when it is presented as evidence, the book's most important contribution is the recognition that adults who attempt to interpret the meaning of children's play may erroneously conclude the play means something it does not. Adults who overinterpret children's play may indoctrinate a child and enforce and produce compliance to the adult's purposes (p. 102). The material in this book would make it difficult to use a child's play behaviors as establishing the facticity of claims about prior events.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.

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