Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Winnicott's Theory of Playing: A Reconsideration

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Winnicott's Theory of Playing: A Reconsideration

Article excerpt


"Playing is itself a therapy," Winnicott (1971a) asserts, in what has now become a famous turn of phrase from Playing and reality (p. 50). This commendation of play marks a milestone in psychoanalysis. According to him, "to arrange for children to be able to play is itself a psychotherapy that has immediate and universal application, and it includes the establishment of a positive social attitude towards playing" (p. 50). Playing, which cannot be dissociated from creativity and a sense of "enjoyment", is an "intensely real" experience that has intrinsic therapeutic virtue, that is to say it is capable of promoting "self-healing."

This extremely powerful idea is the basis of a solid optimism that runs right through Winnicott's work from the beginning of his practice as a paediatrician with babies and young children, up until one of his last books published in the year he died, Playing and reality (1971a). It could even be said that the extraordinary vitality that he managed to breathe into his work, and which probably constitutes one of his most original contributions to psychoanalysis, stemmed from this foundational view of play. The luminosity, freshness, and hope aroused by this Winnicottian axiom stand in sharp contrast with the tragic dimension in Freud's work, the unveiling of chthonic powers in Kleinian theory, as well as the Lacanian division of the subject.

However, in spite of the powerful attraction of this thesis and its apparent clarity, typical of Winnicott's style, it calls for a number of clarifications, and needs putting into perspective. This article aims to reconsider its credo and to direct the spotlight onto the "reverse side" of this theoretical and clinical proposition, onto its negative in the photographic sense of the term, which is to say, onto what can be read between the lines.

Adopting a "symptomal"1 reading of Winnicott's work, I would like to suggest that there is much to be gained by considering the theory of playing from the angle of its internal tensions, its asperities, and even its "lacks," and not only from the angle of its joyful transparency for which it is reputed. This aspect has already drawn the attention of a number of authors among Winnicott's readers (Abram 1996; Green 1997, 2005; Lenormand 2013). However, strangely enough, although this observation has been made, it has never really given rise to a reconsideration of the question of playing in his work as a whole. Green (2005) and Lenormand (2013), the authors who have dwelt most on this question, focus essentially on studying Playing and reality, without giving due consideration to Winnicott's other writings. Now this is the project of the present paper. I will try to put this formulation back into perspective, with the analyses of the play of children in therapy in four texts written in Winnicott's youth: Appetite and emotional disorder (1936), Why children play (1942), Psychoses and child care (1952) and Notes on play (undated), as well as with a re-reading of Playing and reality.

I will argue that throwing light on the complexity of playing and on the multiplicity of logics to which play can give rise remains a blind spot or at least a marginal theme in Winnicott's work, but one that is well worth exploring. Let me add right away that, by the word playing, I am referring to Winnicott's own invention, which this article seeks to throw light on, and, by play, to manifest playful activity in the sense of the Greek paidia, of amusement or of childish forms of play.2 There are, thus, two issues at stake in this article: first it undertakes a re-reading of Winnicott's work, whilst highlighting a degree of complexity and internal tension in it that is often concealed, albeit highly instructive with regard to the question of playful activity. Second, its importance is clinical, in the sense that the celebrity of the formulation and the formidable clinical enthusiasm that it arouses, risk, by partially masking the extreme singularity of playing and the subtlety of Winnicott's invention, deluding the clinician with regard to the therapeutic virtues of play. …

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