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Play & Attachment

In Letters to Malcom, C.S. Lewis wrote that “joy is the serious business of Heaven.” In our daily lives, we often consider things that bring us joy to be an “extra.” We tell ourselves we can go play when our chores are done, or when we’ve finished our homework, or made that hard phone call.  However, in the work of redemption and relationship, play is a top priority. 

Attachment theory is an important aspect of child psychology. The basic idea is that children learn how to form relationships based on the relationship they form with their earliest caregivers. If they learn to trust that other people will meet their needs and respond to them in love, they’ll be secure in communicating needs and relational tensions later in life. If they learn that others can’t or won’t meet their needs, they’ll be more insecure in relationships, avoiding intimacy or becoming preoccupied with the approval of others.

The good news is that researchers are finding that even children who form insecure relationships with their biological parents can learn to form secure relationships later in life, and pass those secure relational dynamics onto their own children. In the foster care system, we are often in the business of rebuilding broken attachments. Children have survived trauma and neglect, and see themselves and the world through damaged and insecure relationships. 

Rebuilding attachments is hard work, but it isn’t all worksheets, therapy appointments, and methodical behavior charts. Attachments are built, and healed, through play. It is in this sphere of joy and play that we learn to connect to one another, and allow our brains the freedom to imagine a new type of relationship. Through games and imaginative play, children are able to test out the attunement skills of their caregivers when their survival is not at stake. 

While we play, our brains are still working hard; creating new pathways and strengthening them. When we play, laugh, and lose track of time doing something we love, our bodies produce the molecules that help brains stay flexible, and bounce back after an emotional trauma. For children who have experienced significant trauma, and whose brains and behaviors are formed around survival, play can provide a space for new ways of thinking and relating. 

The very nature of play allows for “trying on” new styles of relating without commitment. Through imagination and creativity, a child can find the answers they need with little risk. A child who has experienced an adult to be trustworthy and empathetic in their world of make believe, or to carefully swaddle and rock a doll will begin to trust the adult with more substantial material. A caregiver that can respect the child’s rules in a game of lava monster, is also likely to respect the child’s rules about their body and personal space, and as caregivers earn trust in the make-believe world, children may start to reveal more of themselves in the real world. 

The wounds that come from relational trauma and broken attachments are serious and require all kinds of effort and work to repair.  But amidst the therapy appointments, behavior charts, and social worker check-ins, some of our work is to let loose and play. 


Laura Ann PoehnerComment