I watch as a four-year-old client lines up all the little metal toy cars and trucks. There doesn’t seem to be any consistency for which vehicle is placed where. Colors do not seem to be a factor, as types of vehicles are not. This lining up of vehicles has gone on for the past fifteen minutes. There has been very little spoken language.
When my client discovers another group of toys (dinosaurs in assorted colors, sizes and types), those too are added to the sand tray. Lines of vehicles now have the addition of lines of dinosaurs. The sand tray begins to fill with lines of carefully placed toys.
Suddenly my client holds up a green rubbery bug of some sort. The bug is examined silently. Then my client looks at me and holds it out for me to examine, which I do in silence.
“Bad bug?” questions my client.
“It can be anything you want it to be,” I answer, which is my standard answer.
My client looks back at the rubbery bug, turns it over several times and then places it next in line to a blue dinosaur.
By end of the play session, my client has lined up the sand tray at least five times. Each time that the sand tray has become filled with rows and rows of toys, they are all taken out and the process is started again. We had very little conversation, but it was clear that I was very attuned to what my client was doing. I had offered few comments, most of them something like:
“You’re putting that there and that one is being put over there.”
Not exactly illuminating language. For me it is fascinating. For most other adults, it remains, well, somewhat boring. What’s the matter with the kid? Why doesn’t the child play regularly? You know, like building a race track and zooming the cars around; or, make a pretend town and have gas stations and parking lots?
Because this child was working on an issue. These were not cars and trucks and school buses and ambulances. They were not dinosaurs, nor probably about “bad bugs,” as such. These were pieces of a puzzle. This child was using the most common language of childhood: THE METAPHOR.
Children use Metaphorical language until they are about seven or eight years old. It is natural for children to ascribe meaning to toys and behaviors that typically go beyond adult understanding. Oh, how much we big people miss out on by limiting ourselves to the awkward from of verbal communication.
Back to our child and the trucks and dinosaurs. In this particular instance, this child was working out how to cope with inconsistencies in a four-year-old’s life. By being in charge of “lines” this child was bringing stability and control back to acceptable levels. This child was using PLAY to decrease anxiety and build resourcefulness.
To PLAY successfully with your child, let your child tell you what things mean. Sometimes a truck is really a truck; and then again, sometimes a truck is a tool for reducing the burdens of the world.