The Therapeutic Power of Play to Heal Shame in Children

The Therapeutic Power of Play to Heal Shame in Children

The nature of shame is to hide. It keeps pain hidden, the dark corners of our psyche concealed from the masses, too unbearable to share with others, too unbearable to be seen. Look at people with tremendous shame and their head tilts down, their eyes avert contact. Many even have a hard time looking straight into a camera. They must look away. The pain of shame and blame runs that deep. 

Children are, of course, not immune to shame. Raised in abusive, neglectful, toxic environments, shame inevitably buries into their psychophysiology. Beliefs such as “I am wrong”, “I am bad”, “It’s my fault” are common amongst children who experience chronic failures in love; who grow up not feeling emotionally or physically safe; who come to believe that they are the cause of the dysfunction in the home, school, elsewhere, that it’s because of them that they were sexually abused, screamed at, forgotten, again, on the curb-side at school. 

Shame builds over time and has no place to go. It has no outlet for expression, particularly if the parents are too busy for, or incapable of, safe and loving attunement. It must hide if the child is to survive. And so the child must hide.

The fluidity of play
“Letting children play allows them to remain in a state of flow. This is incredibly vital given that flow is the natural state of life.” ~ from Let Children Play and they Remain in a State of Flow by Vince Gowmon

Take a child frozen by shame and place him in environments where play is limited, judged, or not possible, and shame is likely to stay in its frozen state. But allow children to follow their natural rhythms—to move, and explore, and dream, and express through the limitless possibilities of play—and shame finds degrees of movement and resolution in the child’s psychophysiology. 

Play is a state of fluidity, especially unstructured play—play that is self-directed, spontaneous and free. And fluidity, as demonstrated in the natural world, is our most instinctive and healthy way of being. Fluidity ensures that the different parts of ourselves don’t get stuck or trapped in any way. For instance, a healthy emotional body is one where feelings are safely felt and released. Emotion means energy in motion — e-motion. Like anger and sadness, our health depends on shame being expressed, on moving through and out of our system. 

Children are naturally very fluid. As pure expressions of the impulses of wild Mother Nature—“closest to God”, as the old axiom states—they are spontaneous in their cartwheels and spirals, mercurial in their words, big and unbridled in their emotions, and audacious in their imaginings. They are untamed, like Thunder and Raven itself. Their unbounded playful spirit reminds adults lost in rigidity how to be like nature, moving moment-to-moment, with deft fluid presence and expression. 

The limitless possibilities of play feeds this natural instinct to live in spontaneous flow. It tends to it endlessly through the realms of feeling, speaking, acting and dreaming. Allow children room to run amok outside, to build castles, express their boundless joy, draw dragons and fairies, make mud pies, and trapped shame finds safe pockets of air to surface into, to breathe in, to move through, layer by layer. In these moments, play becomes self-led therapy for the child, for it invites creative outlets of expression for that which hitherto has remained afraid and caged. Indeed, with the help of play, the body / mind / soul, an interwoven ecosystem, can remain more open and fluid, like rivers and wind, which supports health on all levels.

By contrast, limit the playground of life for a child and shame has fewer safe places to go. It gets further stuck. Pain remains congealed, hidden, unexpressed and therefore unresolved. Its grooves continue to run deep, or run deeper, in secret chambers of “wrong”, “bad”, “my fault”.

I am reminded of the power of ecstatic dance and singing which has been used ceremonially by traditional societies for thousands of years to move through pain. Dance the body and express the voice with vulnerability and sincerity and the body / mind / soul cannot help but be empowered. Art, climbing monkey bars, chasing after one another, losing themselves in gibberish, each is its own healing ceremony for children, and so much more. 

For these reasons and more, we take care of our children by taking good care of the sacredness of play. We take care of both by remembering how important play is, but also by considering that children carry more pain than we realize. Bear in mind the heavy load of inherited trauma epigenetically passed down through the lineage stored and coded into the DNA. That in itself is its own unavoidable burden, let alone all the conflicting information sent through the media, school system, as well as any traumas incurred in utero or during / after birth. These sensitive little ones are bombarded with stress from conception. And those traumatic imprints need their therapeutic resolution. 

The instinctive therapist
“If you trust play, you will not have to control your child’s development as much. Play will raise the child in ways you can never imagine.” ~ from Remembering the Soulfulness of Play by Vince Gowmon

Play is the instinctive therapist. From the deep inner recesses out, play just knows how and how much to nudge children. Just like a child knows instinctively how to eat and walk, play knows what parts of the child need expression, and to what extent. With a safe holding, either from nature or humans, play shines light into those dark corners inviting them to “come out and play”. Little by little, shame thaws as it finds expression in the movements of life. It heals by no longer hiding.

It’s quite beautiful, if you think about it. If you let the power and wonder of play touch your heart. If you consider that the mysterious intelligence of the body, mind, soul expressed through play acts as a caregiver and healer nurturing the child in ways no one can. 

When we understand that for many children there are few, if any, who can provide loving, safe support, we can see how vital play is for learning and development; for feeling safe in the body and in the world. 

Parents and teachers would do well to recognize this. To let this hit home. And they are. But more needs to be done to make mental/emotional health the foundation for all learning, and for living. A child who does not feel safe in the body due to unconscious shame will, in most cases, struggle to learn and to make the most basic choices. Yet, as the research shows, allow children time to play, especially outdoors, and there is far more space in their system to digest what is being taught. 

Space in the psychophysiology is what healing creates. When after a good cry or energetic release my clients say “I feel more space inside”, what they are experiencing is more room for vitality to fluidly find its way through the system into pockets where there was once trapped shame / trauma. Play creates that space; as do wide open spaces, like forests and fields, and natural learning environments, like forest schools.

Being sequestered to hard seats in rows of desks for hours a day, hit with linear curriculum and the narrow confines of homework, while having a regular dose of after school structured programs, trap children in rigidity. Rigid physical and left brain patterns trap shame because the child is not fully in their mercurial, spontaneous body. They are in their head. They are following rules. 

Yes, this has been the norm for a good while because we have not been trauma-informed as a society. We have not been sensitive to the burdens of children at home. We have not understood the key role play has in fostering a healthy brain and body. But fortunately we are waking up to this.

And so this is my offering to you, a different take on why play is so important. Let it be an instinctual therapeutic outlet for our precious little ones who quietly carry the shame of today and yesterday. Let it be the vehicle through which a child comes out from their dark chambers and they are seen and heard and cherished in their wholeness and magnificence. 

Trust the power of play. As a wise teacher, guide, healer and friend, let play show you the way for a child. Offer an abundance of room for its creative intelligence so the abundance of the child, including her pain, has an opportunity to play. 

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

Posted in Most Popular, Trauma and Healing, Play, Education and tagged , , , , , .

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. I especially see the value of play in Natire. Children transitioning through Foster care, or trauma such as (in my case a home fire with loss of Mother, little Sister and Grandfather) can cause a shutting down, disconnect from peers. When playing in Nature… pain and hurt can be played out… becoming a means to connect and reach through.
    I am Blessed and Grateful (at 65) to be accepted as a Schools Grandma… allowing me as an EA to quietly support children through difficult times by simply being near, affirming and offering positive support to feel, as needed in the moment… and then to let go and immerse in play in our outdoor space amongst, trees, rocks etc. Gg

  2. This article definitely hits home for me as a parent . My 12 year old loves exactly this kind of play and I often find myself not appreciating it , thinking she could be more focused or productive!
    I see it so clearly now. Thank you Vince for opening my eyes.

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