Reflections on Play as Emotional Symbolizing

 Play as Emotional Symbolizing 

Engel, “Peeking Through the Mirror” (2003, 153-166)

Engel extends Vygotsky’s view of children’s symbolic play to focus on narratives that act as boundaries between secret and known. Vygotsky states that make-believe play is socially and culturally determined. Playing the roles of real life characters (for example, a mother or a doctor) children achieve a mental representation of social roles and the rules of society. In addition, Vygotsky believes that play provides a context where children learn first order symbolism through symbolic play. Children learn to move quickly representing objects for other objects and then representing objects with no objects at all. The symbols, while initially dependent on action and physical similarity for their development and expression, become less dependent as children internalize the symbols into mental images. Engel tackles fantasy storytelling as another form of children’s make-believe play to show how children use their inner thoughts as narratives, unleashing their emotional and intellectual problems by translating their inner concerns, fears, and confusions into fantasy “symbolized” play.

Children during play may start narrating their silent inner stories out loud when they are alone. These narratives tell us how children use fantasy storytelling as a psychological medium that merges (Engel, 2003), “What is wild and private” with “What is orderly and public” (p. 154). Thus, the narrative becomes symbolic as children manipulate it to communicate their inner private selves through factual rule-governed stories. By doing so, children form a connection between the self and society.

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On the rational side, the narratives help children understand their society. Psychological research shows how children acquire the mechanics of storytelling to express their cognitive understanding of the values of culture, and shaping their representations of experience. They become able to use storytelling as a means to interact with the people around them. In addition, these fantasy narratives help children develop their language skills. In that sense, fantasy storytelling during play help children think logically, construct organized sequential streams of thought that communicate their reality and their relationship with the world around them–which comprises of another reality.

On the wild side, the narratives allow children to explore their inner “secret spaces of childhood–the child’s inner thoughts and fantasies” (Engel, 2003, p. 155). Whether written or narrated out loud, these stories seem to be conventional and follow the rules and organization of a narrative. However, if we analyze them psychologically, we find out that children communicate their inner emotions, thoughts, needs, and concerns that they cannot express forthrightly. Instead, they use language as a form of play to structure and create images in words to “fulfill their impulse to construct and transform reality” (p. 157). This id-governed primary process thinking draws on modes of symbolization to cover up the child’s thoughts and feelings that cannot be expressed bluntly due to societal constraints. Hence, children utilize the medium of language as means to express themselves, make meaning of the world around them without being judged. In that sense, play can be considered as a ‘safe place’ within which inner tensions can be explored in the outer world through make-believe symbolic play and storytelling.

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Engel states that these stories “serve as the curtain between private and public realms, what is allowed and what is not allowed, what is real and what is imagined, what belongs in a story and what does not” (Engel, 2003, p. 158). This symbolic process of storytelling helps children construct different spheres of reality and provide them with a way to explore the relationship among these spheres. They make sense of the world through storytelling.

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The spoken conscious narrative, just like play, helps children develop their emotional, cognitive, and social selves. It acts as a shield that enables children to let out their unconscious feelings and thoughts that cannot be openly conveyed through embedded symbols merged with the ordinary story line accepted by society. In addition, these narratives act as “a cooling vessel” that gives the children a chance to understand themselves, by distancing themselves from the loaded feelings embedded in such narratives.

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According to the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, these fantasy stories “provide children with a perfect vehicle for exploring sex, satisfying their curiosity, and seeking pleasure” (as cited in Engel, 2003, p. 163). The story form allows children to think, peek, investigate, imagine and explore their desires. It also connects the mind with the body as children construct their mental thoughts into concrete words, merging along the physical and sensuous with the affective and mental.

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Children could explore through fantasy storytelling themselves on different levels. In addition to communication and expression of their inner needs, feelings, and thoughts, children form their own identity through narratives. They are in control of what they want to reveal and what they want to hide. They undergo the process of negotiation between their inner and outer life.

Storytelling plays an important role in the children’s development and can be considered as another form of play that children indulge in to create an understanding of themselves and their society.

Seminar III: Make-Believe Play

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