By Dominic McNally Date Posted: Tuesday, 22 May 2007   Dominic McNally is from the Lake District, in England. He is an experienced residential child care worker. In his work he has always felt that children and young people need caring adults to play with them in a wholehearted way. In this way he believes relationships are formed which are nurturing for child and adult alike.


The importance of play in the care of children and young people : reflections on a short case study.


Play is a fundamental part of  childhood and it is important in the development of  all children and young people. Play does not help just in the physical health of a person, but in their mental health too. This essay will look at a time when I have played with a young person who was a resident in the children’s home in which I worked. I will also argue  that the episode of  play I describe benefited not only  that young person and also all the others living in the children’s home. I will look at the social implications of play and the way in which it can make for more harmonious living in the children’s home and in wider society. I will also look at the way in which play can help young people come to terms with the trauma they have experienced, and the effects this can have for them and life in the children’s home.


An impromptu role play with Mary

A young person, called Mary asked me to sit down with her in the living room and talk with her whilst there were no other young people around. I sat down on the sofa, and she asked me how I was and if I had any problems that I wanted to talk about. I instantly realised by her tone and body language that Mary was wanting me to role-play. She was taking on the role of a member of staff and obviously wanted me to take up the role of a resident. Mary’s first question was ‘I see you are having problems with other residents in the house. How do you feel about this?’ I was aware that she was talking about her own current worries in the house, so I decided to talk about these. I spoke about how I was finding it hard to get on with other residents in the home and that this made me feel sad, and how I felt I wanted to belong to the group. Mary then gave me advice on how I should react to the other residents. She said I should try and not respond to the taunts of the other young people and they would soon get bored of picking on me. She also told me that I should acknowledge that I sometimes instigate confrontations and pick on other residents who are smaller than me. I then said to Mary that I find it hard to settle at night. Mary went on to give me tips on what would help me settle at night. She said maybe I should ask staff to sit with me for 5 minutes and read a book to me at bedtime which would stop me wandering about at night. I thanked Mary  for her help, and told her I felt better after having our little chat.



In this short spontaneous role play there was much to think about. Mary was not only trying to tell me that she was worried about these problems, but by letting me take her place, it meant that I could verbalise issues for her that she found difficult to put into words. Our little play had acted as a tool for her to understand what she was feeling. Mary may have found it hard to ‘sort out’ in her head what her feelings were and what she should be doing about it. By talking the problem out with me in this way she was able to distance herself from the problem as it was now my problem and she was able to look at it from the outside without her overwhelming feelings clouding her thoughts. From my point of view our play gave me the opportunity to bring up with Mary that she was not settling down to bed on time without sounding as if I was ‘nagging’ or telling her what to do. The outcome of this was that Mary herself had come up with a way that staff could work with her to help her settle down better at bedtime. As this was just play it gave Mary a platform to ask to be read a story at night without the possible feeling of embarrassment. Even if I had laughed at her suggestion it might not have mattered because it was ‘just play’ and as I had taken on her role it would have given her the opportunity to laugh at me. By thanking Mary for the chat and telling her that I felt better, I was showing her in a way she could accept that talking through things with staff can help young people feel better. My praise for Mary’s help in the role play may also have helped her feel good about herself  because she had worked the issues through with me.

It is surprising to me that in recent times there has been less focus on the significance of play between adolescents and staff in a group living setting like a children’s home. In the short term it is possible to see or indeed to use play as a way of distracting young people from events in their lives which are causing them distress but in the long run play is an important way of  releasing pent up frustrations.  I have observed that over a period of time the more a young person is involved in play the less often he or she will rely on anger as a way of expressing themselves. In a children’s home such a development makes a young person feel more secure. This can make the environment of the children’s home safer for everyone. The safer the living environment becomes, the greater opportunity there is for more play and all the exponential benefits that come with that.

Non-verbal communication is another important way that human beings use to communicate and it is often used by children who may not be able to find the words for their sometimes unbearable feelings. Often this is the only medium they have to communicate with the world outside of them  In play there is much non-verbal communication and it is important that care workers through play try to understand these  feelings and give them back to young people in a way which is understandable and bearable for them. Young people use play to express ‘ their conscious and unconscious needs, fantasies, ideas, thoughts feelings and conflicts’ (Dwivedi, 1993, p129). This implies that play in the arena of a children’s home has huge potential for providing therapeutic experience. Where there are hostile, destructive and self-destructive feelings, play offers a creative, constructive and necessary avenue for healthy growth.



For any young person play is both a means of expression and a means of making sense of the world. Using the imagination ideas and objects can be used to represent others and their feelings. From play a young person can ‘rebuild his world, reduced to a size he can handle’ (Axline,1964, p22). A young person can transfer feelings on to toys. This is why it is not unusual to see beaten and battered teddy bears being dragged along behind children. The unspeakable feelings of hate which children inevitably feel towards  their parents are directed towards teddy instead. In our work of  caring for children and young people we should be aware of the emotional links and  interpretive ideas that can be introduced through the play fantasies of children and young people. In therapeutic terms these can provide a safe  means of  ‘ enacting and working through difficult fantasies and life events’ (Dwivedi, 1993, p129). This ‘working through’ of feelings through play can act, as they did with Mary, as a huge relief for a young person who has been holding frightening feelings inside.



Axline, V. (1964) Dibs in Search of  Self.   New York :  Ballantine Books

Dwivedi , K.N. (1993) Group Work with Children and Adolescents : a Handbook     London  : Jessica Kingsley

01 Jul 2007,    Alex Russon writes
‘Play’ to me appears to be a very positive interaction when carried out sensitively, but requires caution. It’s susceptible to manipulation and if entered into too often or in the wrong situation, can give rise to the child sensing a gradual feeling of power over their carer,in turn bolstering their self-regard in the company of peers. Self grandeur sets in. Conversely, if new found confidence is well harnessed, the individual may become a positive role model within the home
25 Jun 2007,    Meg Lindsay writes
There is a great deal in this article, and in it Dominic shows one way in which play can be used as a practice for life, but I wondered if he has thought about the importance of play in developing our symbolic communication ?
22 Jun 2007,    Donna Hugh writes
Dominic Mc Nally shows us that something spontaneous and natural like play can be effective in drawing out the problems which young people want to talk about but are so often reluctant to, and it seems to me our current professional focus on five specific outcomes is not particularly helpful in any therapeutic sense.
16 Jun 2007,    Jane Kenny writes
Dominic says the ability to play is necessary and natural and has to be encouraged by parents or carers. Infants not helped to play will as they become older find play threatening. If these young people are to learn to play they must be given the opportunity to regress safely in order to play in the way they have missed. This is easier said than done.
11 Jun 2007,    Patson Musumali writes
Do many adults realise how much play can restore in as far as betrayed confidence is concerned? Many a young person just needs to know adults do really care. They have been through thick and thin in as far as adults are concerned. Dominic concisely illustrates this point. A clear practical and workable childcare solution.
11 Jun 2007,    Alison Poltock writes
Play is a therapeutic tool.Mary initiated the encounter.She had something to say & trusted Dominic.Enforced play won’t yield results.Teenagers suss out structured events as deliberate attempts at therapy.Play is spontaneous,not target based.Opportunities can be taken for the carer to be child & child, carer.A carer as child prompts activity & talk.Behavioural insight gained is a bonus to other benefits, developing social skills & trust.Did any further ‘play’ improve Mary’s bedtime routine?