IPT Book Reviews

Title: Children at Play: Clinical and Developmental Approaches to Meaning and Representation  Positive Review
Editors: Arietta Slade and Dennie Palmer Wolf
Publisher: Oxford University Press 1994

Oxford University Press
200 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10016


Three parts, including 14 chapters, an index make up this 313-page book.  The five chapters that make up Part I deal with affect in symbolization.  Part II includes three chapters that add the issue of relationships to the process of symbolization.  The final part, Part III, has five chapters that deal with specific populations, such as males and females, Down Syndrome children, deaf children, inhibited children, and children with affective disorders.  The sixth chapter in this part deals with the issue of pretense and the emotional value of pretense.


As in many edited books, the chapters in this book are somewhat uneven.  While some include reports of studies with a minimal level of quantification and data with at least a rudimentary statistical analysis, most are based on anecdotal case studies and clinical observations.  This is not surprising inasmuch as the basic approach of the book is psychoanalytic.  The concept is that "... in play children learn to negotiate meaning using the opportunities and materials a culture makes available" (p. vii).  Although the chapters vary in quality; all contributors show a compassion and care for children and a sense of wonder and amazement at the development of children.  The interest in the child as a person comes through in every chapter.  Play is believed to provide a window to the child's level of understanding.

A fundamental understanding expressed throughout the book is that play is an interactive process and that the child and the therapist are co-creators of the play.  The therapist has the responsibility to ensure that any interpretation offered does not go beyond the child's current capacity of perception.  "Interpretation outside the ripeness of the material is indoctrination and produces compliance" (p. 102).  The therapist is the coauthor of the narratives developed in play.  One of the more quantified studies reports that in play children were 87 to 91% contingent and mothers were 97% contingent (p. 188).  Such a high level of observed interaction can only underline the interactive nature of play.  The understanding of symbolism and pretense play that is common throughout all the chapters is that this quality of play means that it cannot be viewed as statements about the reality or veridicality of real events.  It is always the child's perception affected by developmental levels, individual differences, and the interaction with the adult.

For anyone who engages in play therapy this book can be of great assistance in staying humble before the mystery of humanity and maintaining limits upon the interpretations placed on play.  A grasp of this book's understanding of children at play would eliminate almost all use of play as an investigatory tool in attempting to obtain information about hypothesized or suspected prior events.  At the same time, it will enrich anyone who wants to bring a positive and nurturing element into the interactions between an adult and a child at play.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, North field, Minnesota.

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