Children also attempt to master life. They must master the world around them, their bodies and their conflicting internal experience. Forbidden wishes are examples of conflicting internal wishes. Children may wish to hurt/destroy/kill, but they also don’t wish to hurt/disappoint/destroy the person that cares for them and that they care about. They also know that it’s against the law or against their parent’s wishes to act on such things.
The work of a play therapist or parent is to help a child become more at ease with their forbidden wishes, verbalize them, and to learn that a wish is very different than an action.
When you can identify and express a forbidden wish verbally, you are less likely to act on it inappropriately. It is the healthy person that can say, “I am so envious of your new toy/car/marriage. I wish I had that, but I wouldn’t want to take those things from you!” This is hard for many adults to say or acknowledge and it is a long term goal for a child to develop such emotional strength.
What else are children trying to master when they play? At an early age, toddlers play by grabbing, moving, crawling and walking. They are trying to master the function of their bodies. As a child ages, they continue to master their bodies (“How fast can I run? How far can I throw? How creative of a story can I write? I can cook like daddy too!”).
They are also copying what grown ups and kids do around them in an attempt to process and master how things work. “My dad puts the pot on the stove. I will put a pot on my toy stove. I will stir things just like daddy.” They may not know why or exactly what they are doing, but they will copy those around them. Why? So they can figure out what’s happening.
Through this repetitive play, they will master understanding of the world and how it works. Eventually, little by little their brains will figure out, “Oh! My daddy is making my yummy oatmeal!” Then later, “Oh, my yummy oatmeal is warm because he turns on that strange fire and I think that fire makes it hot because daddy keeps saying ‘Hot! Hot!'” And even later, the child is thinking, “He stirs the oatmeal so it won’t burn like that time daddy forgot to stir and there was a yucky smell!”