The Experience of Playing to Learn

by Celine O’Driscoll

“Young healthy animals of all species play with a reckless abandon, frenzied in their passionate play activities. This is not wish fulfilment, it is the ecstasy of  experiencing life to its fullest, living absolutely in the moment”   (Barnes, 2004).

The invitation to write this article followed conversations I had with a colleague describing my experience, post-graduation, on a play therapy training course. My core training is in counselling/psychotherapy and previous to that, I worked for many years as a primary school teacher. On graduating as a psychotherapist, it was my intention to specialise in working therapeutically with children, hence my enrolment on a play therapy training course. The course I chose covers instruction in the use of therapeutic play skills with children, is modular in format and places a particular emphasis on the experiential. It is this element of learning, which has proven to be, for me, a most exciting and sometimes challenging experience.

“When we travel, what path we follow, with whom we share the journey, are all in a way, incidental to the process”   (Macbeth, 1990).

On the first of what was to be, five intensive three-day weekends, I passed through the gates of All Hallows College and immediately felt myself to have arrived in a little haven of tranquillity. The first morning was reminiscent of other ‘first day’ experiences – a mix of silent wonderings and apprehension tinged with excitement. That day I became one of a group of twenty, who have journeyed with me, over the past nine months. Our backgrounds range across, social work, psychology, nursing, education, counselling, psychotherapy and there is a wealth of knowledge and experience held and shared within the group.

The first module we experienced was an introduction to Art, Visualization and Sandplay. Having surrendered myself to various relaxation and visualization exercises, I soon found myself part of a group painting exercise. Confronted by a sea of colour, textures and materials, I felt seriously challenged by the blank page in front of me. I was firmly in the grip of some long held idea that inwardly protested, ‘I can’t paint and I can’t draw’. What I discovered as the weekend’s artistic activities and tasks unfolded however, was that I can be drawn to colours, to creating shape and lines which somehow strangely coagulate into expressions of mood, feeling and fantasy. The authenticity of this mode of expression outweighed my initial sense of ineptitude replacing it with a sense of achievement, fun and strange fleeting, childlike thoughts of fridge door exhibits!

The learning I take from this activity resonates with the view held by Sunderland (2005) who suggests that emotional experiences cannot always be reduced to words. The very act of ‘creating’ helps us to access our innate symbol-making capacity as a tool for expressing and understanding our experiences, fosters a new relationship with the imagination and activates creative problem-solving capacities. A brief introduction to sandplay completed this week-end and served to whet the appetite for weekend two.

“Don’t just say something, sit there!” (Bradway & Mc.Coard, 2005).

The second module I experienced was sandplay, which was facilitated by John Daly, psychologist and therapist. Before any sand was touched, John delivered a wonderful theoretical perspective on the development of the psyche, which encompassed Freud, Klein, Jung, Winnicott, Mahler and Kernberg. I was quietly delighted that many of these theorists were already very familiar to me from my core training.

In preparation for this module I had reviewed Kay Bradway’s and Barbara Mc.Coard’s book entitled ‘Sandplay – Silent Workshop of the Psyche’. (Yes, there are written assignments!) While this was a fascinating introduction to sandplay concepts and processes, the learning piece was, naturally, conveyed through words. The actual experience of moving from my chair to working on the floor with a sandtray and symbols, represented not only a physical move but also strangely, a metaphorical shift in psychological space and consciousness. Bradway (2005) contends that sandplay provides a way of ‘dropping’ into the pre-verbal areas of the psyche and accessing that ‘transitional play space’ described by Winnicott. This area of experience is deemed to be the place where the inner and outer worlds of the sandplayer are kept separate but interrelated. As the sandplayer gets deeper into the process, the making of the sand tray scene tends to be influenced more by inner processes.

My experience of sandplay on this course fits with much of this perspective. We worked with sand over two full days – at times the sandplay was directive and at other times, non-directive. Each experience was unexpectedly powerful and absorbing. I was aware of being drawn to certain symbols as I scanned the large collection provided. I had no clear idea where any of these symbols would be placed or even how they would form my sandtray scene. Yet all the chosen symbols had a place and role in my tray and seemed to arrange themselves, through me, into a representation of elements of self, situations, directions and relationships in my life. I was aware of feeling very strong emotions while creating different parts of my sand trays and was grateful for the non-intrusion of my designated ‘therapist’. She afforded me freedom, a protected space and silent, but attentive witnessing. When I became the ‘therapist’ I was very aware of the almost total silence and absorbed concentration of the sandplayer. I experienced how this approach is so different from talking therapy and learned that there is meaning in the ‘not-saying’. The words of Mark Barnes, (2004) sum it up exactly, “When we use words we are up in our heads. True healing occurs below jaw level”

“We all know, intuitively perhaps, that music is much more than just sounds put together, or pretty tunes”  (Pavlicevic, 1999).

The third module of this course introduced Music Therapy and Therapeutic Storytelling. The storytelling framework, principles and strategies were presented and explained to the group. We were then invited to create stories using images from chosen picture cards and small groups of random objects as stimuli. The experience of composing, telling and hearing the stories of the group proved to be one of great fun, laughter and a surprising, occasional lump in the throat! The extent of the themes, metaphors, characters, settings and events was amazing and highlighted further dimensions of each group member. The metaphors which emerged in these stories held personal meaning.

The music therapy module needed to be accessible to all group members and be non-threatening! It therefore took the form of sound exploration using a wide variety of percussion instruments. The emphasis was on communication using instrument, not word. The act of sitting on the floor, sensing the sounds and vibrations in a bodily way, created a new perspective on communicating with another and evoked many emotions. One of the most profound experiences for me was when I was invited to represent through sound, a person who is important in my life. This exercise was particularly challenging because this was an unfamiliar concept and I wasn’t sure how I could accomplish this without words. I was surprised by my own capacity to communicate the essence, fun and joyous nature of this person and incredibly this was what was heard and understood by the group.

Pavlicevic (1999) speaks of the ‘music child’, as the inner core of every human being – an inner core that remains healthy and creative regardless of one’s life experiences  and is the source of ‘wellness’ that music therapy taps. It seems to me that each member of our group encountered his/her own music child within the activities and experiences of this particular module.

“Let’s dance, put on your red shoes and dance…” (David Bowie, 1983)

The fourth weekend brought us dance and movement. For the first time on this course I really wanted to avoid a module and this was the one! I was encouraged however, to suspend all critical faculties and to trust. Reluctantly, removing shoes and socks, I took to the floor one more time. Dance Movement Therapy is founded on the principle that movement reflects a person’s pattern of thinking and feeling and that movement awareness facilitates self-awareness. By acknowledging and working with existing movement patterns, related thoughts and feelings can be identified and processed and newer adaptive patterns adopted. Theoretically, we explored movement in terms of body mass travelling through time and space with flow! In simple terms, we danced or moved in pairs, threes and bigger groups. We created floor and spatial touch patterns. We laughed, sang, skipped, hopped, stretched and twisted, were silent or still and tapped into body memories. In my case, self-awareness crystallized overnight, into muscle and joint awareness, manifested as pain! Attachment Theory was the focus of the final day and attachment to my chair took on a whole new significance!

As I write I have one more weekend to complete, Art and Clay. I look forward eagerly to further opportunities to play as I learn and to experience myself fully in that process.

Celine O’Driscoll is a psychotherapist  working in a secondary school setting and currently training with APAC/ Play Therapy UK/Play Therapy Ireland.


Barnes, M.A. (2004) The Healing Path With Children: An Exploration for parents and Professionals (2nd edition). East Sussex, England:The Play Therapy Press.

Bradway, K. and Mc.Coard, B. (2005) Sandplay – Silent Workshop of the Psyche (3rd edition). New York:Routledge.

Macbeth, J. (1990) Moon Over Water:The Path of Meditation. Dublin:Gateway.

Pavlicevic, M. (1999) Music Therapy:Intimate Notes. London:Jessica Kingsley.

Sunderland, M. (2005) Draw On Your Emotions. Bicester,UK:Speechmark.