The Creative Space of Play: D.W. Winnicott

19 September 2010

The great British psychologist D.W. Winnicott believed playing serves as the basis for creativity and the discovery of the self. All human culture, including not only the arts, but science and religion as well, are not diminished but more fruitfully understood and cherished and cultivated when understood as what they are: highly developed forms of playing.

What is playing? Playing, says Winnicott, is first of all something that happens in the interface between our inner world and external reality. Taking place neither strictly in our imagination, nor in the truly external world (ie. all that is out of our control), playing happens in that space where our imagination is able to shape the external world without the experience of compliance, climax, or too much anxiety. (He points out how a high degree of anxiety can accompany play and yet it will remain “essentially satisfying”: however, “there is a degree of anxiety that is unbearable and this destroys playing” [Playing and Reality, 70].)

Examples of what playing is not:

Playing is not compliant. Playing cannot happen when a person feels acute pressure to perform in some mandated way, or to live up to any standard, or to be consistent, or to make sense, or anything else. (Playing by definition allows for the bringing out of the self into the outside world some “sample” of inner or personal reality, in order to shape portions of external reality set according to these “samples”.)

Playing has nothing to do with any climax of instinctual arousal. Rather, “playing can be said to reach its own saturation point, which refers to the capacity to contain experience” (70). Playing is not the climactic satisfaction of any instinctual drive, but a freely creative activity within which the one playing has the capacity to remain in this state of freedom.

Playing cannot involve too much anxiety – ie. fear. Playing can be very frightening, and contain a great deal of anxiety, but at a certain point the level of fear/anxiety destroys the playing.

What does playing do? At the most rudimentary level, playing offers the experience of a “non-purposive state” (74). It opens up a space of trust and relaxation in which the need to make sense — to defend oneself — is absent, so that genuinely free association can happen. It is out of this state alone, Winnicott claimed, that “a creative reaching-out can take place” (75, emphasis his). Therefore, though creative adults (in whatever space they occupy) are cultivating their world in very sophisticated ways compared to an infant, it should be acknowledged, said Winnicott, that there are times when adults, too, need to rediscover this “formlessness”, and that in any case, all of our creative engagement with the world has this safe space — in which one can form all variety of nonsense* without fear of judgment — as its foundation.

The “creative reaching-out” of playing, which Winnicott understands also as the search for self — creative activity as the search for self — does not result in an integrated sense of self, however, without the “reflecting back” or “summation” of one’s reaching-out, one’s play, by another: for instance, a friend. Only when our nonsense is accepted — “reflected-back” — can we begin, says Winnicott, to be found, or to be.

Winnicott uses as an example an infant who was having many daily fits for most of its first year of life. When the mother brought it to him, on successive occasions he held the infant in his lap and allowed her to pull his tie and bite his knuckle and throw spatulas on the floor, all the while crying. On the last occasion the baby cried at first, as usual, but then

bit my knuckle very severely, this time without showing any guilt feelings, and then played the game of biting and throwing away spatulas; while on my knee she became able to enjoy play. After awhile she began to finger her toes, and so I had her socks and shoes removed. The result of this was a period of experimentation which absorbed her whole interest. It looked as if she was discovering and proving over and over again, to her great satisfaction, that whereas spatulas can be put to the mouth, thrown away, and lost, toes cannot be pulled off. […] Four days later the mother came and said that… the baby was ‘ a different child’. She had had no fits. […] I visited this child one year later and found that since the last consultation she had had no symptom whatever. I found an entirely healthy, happy, intelligent and friendly child, fond of play, and free from the common anxieties (66-67).

This example illustrates the kind of (frightening!) nonsense which it is necessary to allow and to “reflect back” without judgment if a creative life is to become possible.

It illustrates also the beginning of playful discovery, which is the creative association of those samples of inner/personal reality with pieces of the external world. In other words, if I am right, play, reflected back by a friend, is the creation, and validation, of a triadic — that is, a meaningful –relationship with the world. In reaction against this, compliance, and climax, and uncontainable fear or anxiety, are violently dyadic, annihilating of the creative person and the space of play both.

In the triadic relationship with the world — of self, samples of inner reality, and pieces of external reality, united in a relaxed and trustworthy environment where one’s play is accepted and reflected-back by a friend — “the individual can come together and exist as a unit [that is, as one whole], not as a defense against anxiety but as an expression of I AM, I am alive, I am myself. From this position everything is creative” (76, my emphasis).

*…keeping in mind that “organized nonsense is already a defense, and organized chaos is a denial of chaos” (75).


To love objects is to love life.

The pure shaft of a single granary on the prairie,

The small pool of rain in the plank of a railway siding…

– Theodore Roethke

Hypothesis: At its most sophisticated, playing becomes our vision of the whole universe.


One Response to “The Creative Space of Play: D.W. Winnicott”

  1. Karen B said

    Thank you so much for your article. It is the clearest, most succinct and most satisfying summation of Winnicott’s theories of play and creativity that I’ve been able to find. It reminds me of why I love Winnicott’s thinking so much.

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