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Playfulness and Healing

Several years ago, while visiting Washington D.C., I boarded a bus to the Capitol Mall from a point located in a poorer section of the city. Upon boarding, I was greeted with blank facial expressions and slumped body language that spelled “exhaustion and despair”, most likely resulting from feeling the lifelong weight of poverty and racism. Being a white, fairly affluent stranger whose relatives openly exhibited anti-Black racism, I found myself struggling with a strong mix of emotions: Guilt, fear and alienation being the most prominent.  My first inclination was to close down my empathy and desire to connect, thus violating my personal and professional commitment to assist in opening up channels of meaningful dialogue between members of marginalized and privileged groups and belying the tone of my work on social advocacy.

It was at this point that I noticed a young child, probably around two years of age, whose demeanor mirrored that of the adults around her. Although she was in close physical proximity to her mother, they seemed to be locked in their independent closed universes. Possessing an affinity and ease with children most likely led to my focusing attention on that young girl with a warm, relaxed, inviting smile. She caught my gaze and, for a short period, continued to manifest the same blank, unresponsive facial expression and body language, while continuously glancing back. A short time later a tinge of curiosity began to overtake her expression, and I could feel my smile deepen.

Soon thereafter, her eyes lit up a bit, and some playful expressions found their way into her face, expressions that I mimicked in a subtle manner with a heightened sense of playfulness on my face. She then upped the ante by making more strikingly playful expressions, which I met in a similar manner. Soon she began to make movements with her body and began to smile as I mimicked them, feeling my smile broaden and my facial expression brighten as it does when I enjoy playful bouts with my grandchildren and young clients.

playfulness and healingAs our mutual movements increased in intensity, other passengers, including the girl’s mother began to take note, smiles beginning to show on their faces. As my new playmate and I continued to unabashedly exaggerate our movements, the other passengers began to follow suit, ultimately leading to singing and dancing. By the time the bus approached my stop, the atmosphere on the bus became transformed into a celebratory one. As I (reluctantly, at this point) exited the bus I received many appreciative “good-byes”.

Effectiveness of Playfulness

Reflection on the playful connection described in this vignette provides clues regarding the effectiveness of playfulness as a vehicle to enhance family and clinical relationships. According to Schwartz and Braff (2012) play includes openness, novelty, flexibility, lightheartedness, cooperation, risk taking, trust, positive emotion, behavioral flexibility, and interpersonal connection. Many of these were present in the interaction described above. Playful connections that are healing contain an egalitarian element that tends to balance unequal power dynamics. When working with children in a clinical setting, a more egalitarian approach invites cooperation and connection.

An analysis of the factors contributing to the transformations that occurred on the bus that day might include a discussion of the implicit messages contained in the interactions and their likely impact on a number of core issues with which all humans seem to grapple. They can be conceptualized as the degree we feel that we are good, valuable, worthy of respect, etc; the degree to which we feel seen by and connected to others; the degree of personal power or sense of effectiveness; the degree of felt safety; the degree to which we feel hopeful; and the degree to which we are able to trust our perceptions of situations and think independently.

Struggles with these issues impact identity formation, our sense of our place in the world, and underlie, to some extent, most of our emotionally based issues and dysfunctional interactions.  Addressing these issues with clients has become the core focus of my clinical practice, and I have found that the use of playfulness has been highly effective in helping clients to access and resolve them.

Healing Through Play

Returning to the vignette, one can visualize how, through play, I was offering an interaction that addressed these core issuesWith a warm, relaxed, persistent gaze in my playmate’s direction and willingness to engage with her on terms that she set, I seemed to convey the message that I liked her, that she was valuable and important. By providing the room for her to relate to me on her terms and to take the lead in our interactions I most likely reinforced her sense of power.

My accurate mimicry of her movements and sounds indicated that I “saw” her, and most likely validated her effectiveness in communication even though it was non-verbal. Each time I reflected back to her these sounds and movements, she was able to engage her intellectual curiosity and creativity, defining what was playful for her and testing out responses to her sense of play.

Providing the room for young people to take the lead in play provides a welcome relief from the all-too-numerous situations where they do not have control. Her sense of power and effectiveness, coupled with my openness and vulnerability most likely contributed to my playmate’s sense of safety and trust, encouraging her to keep the connection with me and accelerate the playful interactions. Finally, in this scenario, our interaction invited my playmate and myself to experience hopefulness: The hope that people can connect in any context, at any time, and the hope that the image of white people can possibly be altered by those who have been so deeply marginalized by our domination. By the time I left the bus I no longer felt guilt, fear, or alienation and, by the response I received as I left, the atmosphere of despair had also been lifted.



Schwartz, R. & Braff, E. (2012). We’re no fun anymore: Helping couples cultivate joyful
marriages through the power of play. New York:

Article Author

Jerry Saltzman

Teaching Faculty, School of Applied Psychology, Counseling and Family Therapy

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