Real healing in pretend world


Susan Linn, in addition to being a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and at Boston's Judge Baker Children's Center, spends much of her day conversing with puppets. Ventriloquist Linn's favorite puppet is a duck named Audrey: "I am a woman of a certain age who talks to a duck. . . . Speaking through Audrey frees up my deepest self and, in doing so, brings to light feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that might otherwise remain buried, or that I might not even know that I have."

Linn's use of puppets to enter the imaginary worlds of children has a critical purpose. Linn and her array of puppets help children heal, whether it's from the death of a parent, the ordeal of surgery, or other real-world crises. Linn engages children in play, bringing them into a world of make-believe, as a means of creating a safe place for them to express complex feelings of grief and fear and anger.

Linn describes how she works by presenting numerous examples of children she's helped. She allows children to say the things they don't feel safe enough or strong enough to say in the "real" world. "It's not my goal to impose resolutions on the fantasy situations children create when we play together," writes Linn, "but rather to help them find their way through - and in the process enable them to experience themselves as powerful, competent, and creative human beings."

One child Linn helped was 5-year-old Michael, who was having difficulty making the transition from a nurturing preschool to a new kindergarten. In one of the book's most touching moments, Michael and Audrey the Duck sing the blues together about losing something we love: "Every time! I got the blues," sings Michael, "I don't want to leave school." Audrey sings back: "But I'm glad he's gonna go, 'cause it means he's growing up. And that's a good thing." In moments like these, as Michael and other children struggle with life's challenges, readers see why Linn advocates so passionately for the healing power of play.

Linn makes the case, quite overwhelmingly, that the creativity of play must come from children themselves and not from high-tech gadgetry and interactive toys filled with computer chips. The bells-and-whistles approach to toys, one that saturates the world of kids, limits play by forcing it into directions dictated by toy manufacturers. Simple, low-cost, and low-tech toys are best, says Linn: "We are constructing a modern childhood dominated by experience that promotes reactivity, conformity, and the notion that challenges have only one solution."

Linn, for instance, rejects the ever-popular concept of the Disney princess. What does the Disney princess, marketed in films, toys, games, and everywhere else, tell girls? According to Linn, Disney teaches that "the female ideal is a rich white girl who lives in a big house with servants who do the work" and waits around for some prince to save her from life's inevitable difficulties. When 4-year-old Abigail engages in play with Linn, she instructs Linn to play the handsome prince and save her from drowning. Linn turns the game around, pretending to be a prince who jumps into the water but can't swim. Abigail swims over to save her prince from drowning: "I remember how to swim!" she exclaims.

"The Case for Make Believe" is a wonderful look at how playing can heal children, how in "pretend-worlds" they can find their truest selves. As for Linn, she's an inspiringly playful woman whose compassion and fierce advocacy for kids is on every page of this terrific book.