Playing is Serious Business!

As part of our forthcoming exhibition PLAY, Freud Museum curator Sophie Leighton has been working with artist and researcher Theokritos Papadopoulos.

We have been to Corner House, an after school and holiday club for vulnerable children, run by the charity UP: Unlocking Potential.

We have joined the staff and children in a creative project to explore toys through 3D modelling. Their work will feature in the exhibition.

I am a curator with no experience of working in a therapeutic setting with children – I usually work in the museum building, caring for museum collections and liaising with artists. So I was excited to get involved in this project.

What are we going to do today?

At 4pm I turned up, ready for my first afterschool session.

Knowing that children get referred to Corner House because of challenging home lives and difficult behaviour at home and school I expected children to be tearing up the room.

The room was like a school art room, full of drawers of stuff: of pens, of scissors, of card, paper, of old bits of fabric and even a box of broken toys. I saw a table laden with materials. Bright stickers, pots of clay and wodges of card were laid out, waiting to be used. There was a big table in the middle, with office chairs that had been carefully covered in rich fabrics.

There was no challenging behaviour, no noisiness. There was a quiet inquisitiveness. Eyes and bodies darted about the small space. What is going on in this room? Who are these people? What are we going to do today?

Psychoanalytic Play

Theokritos begins with a premise advocated by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, that psychoanalytic play is open ended, improvised and must develop slowly, coming from the child.

‘The stories will come,’ he tells me. It is in these stories, this narrative, that healing and development can happen.

The children are offered clay in bright colours. It is a wonderful texture: soft and squidgy, like a stress ball. ‘Children love to play with these types of materials,’ Theokritos notes.

They become relational objects, a soft ‘other’ to become attached to, mentally and literally: it sticks slightly to my hands as I model it.

‘My cowboy doesn’t need ears!’

The five children in the room make a beeline for the clay. Others pop their heads round the door and come and have a look. They grab papier mache horses left out and mould figures onto them using the clay.

‘Think of your favourite toy at home’ suggests Theokritos, yet his voice is lost in the excitement.

‘My cowboy doesn’t need ears’ says one… ‘It doesn’t need to hear’. ‘I can’t do it’ says another, ‘help me’.

Experienced staff assist the children to achieve their aims. ‘What are you making?’ asks someone else, putting a bird on his figure’s head.

In this small group energy is fine tuned to the project of making. Attention spans that are apparently deficient stretch out for the full session, as the children concentrate on their creations.

They want to take them home but say that it is OK to put them in the exhibition at the Freud Museum first.

‘Can I come and see it in the museum?’ one asks. ‘Yes’, comes the response. They can’t wait.


With thanks to the inspiring staff and children at Corner House.

PLAY at the Freud Museum
19 July – 10 September

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