Ann Cattanach, Narrative Approaches in Play with Children,
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia, 2008
Mari Carmen García Mulsa
Mexico City, Mexico
This book is a union of myths and popular and personal stories that can be used in therapy with children in order to help them give sense to their lives and build their identities. While you are reading, it seems as though we should have this type of book, which gathers stories with therapeutic ends, in each culture.
The author, Ann Cattanach, describes narrative play techniques with children for parents and therapists with a collaborative approach. “It is a book about stories and the way they impact lives,” says Cattanach. It is about the way in which the stories we have heard since childhood and the ones we tell throughout our lives help us to form our identity and sense of self.
In an introduction on the definition of narrative play, the proposals of the social constructionist view, the hermeneutic approach, the narrative therapy of White and Epston, and the development of imagination and pretend play, Cattanach traces the basis to establishing a communication between children and adults in order to co-construct a space and relationship that allows the child to develop a personal and social identity using stories that give sense to the events of life.
The enormous value of Narrative Approaches in Play with Children comes from the incorporation of songs, poems, rhymes, riddles, stories, and folk tales throughout the entire book, from the first paragraph on. These pieces show a variety of worldviews that may help children to understand their struggles in a wider horizon.
The first chapter covers therapeutic relationships and begins with an examination of the history of childhood. Cattanach quotes the wonderful book of the French historian Phillippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, in which he traces the historic evolution of family life and childhood across four centuries. Cattanach further explains the constructions adults have about childhood that might impact their understanding of children, their games and symbols, and the space, rules, and materials involved when they play together.
In chapter 2, Cattanach emphasizes the way to begin a therapeutic approach when we play with children who are struggling to find a place for themselves. It is possible to start with stories and plays about the creation of the universe. We can ask the child to draw or imagine where he came from before he was born. “A sort of being before becoming,” Cattanach writes. One can use toys, objects, sand, and water to define those fanciful worlds and begin the narrative of the self.
Cattanach presents different stories about the creation of the world from tribes of North America (Sioux, Salishan), the Binis from Nigeria, and the Ainu from Japan. She also talks about stories of the end of the world that reflect the desolation expressed by unsafe children. There are stories that help to restart and develop a nurturing relationship where the child can be heard and stories to begin to play the retelling of the self.
From the stories of the beginning of the world, it is possible to move to the personal history of the child in order to explore his family story. Once children discover their past in play and express it, then they will be able to speak of their present and imagine a better future.
In therapy with children who have traumas caused by family violence, physical or sexual abuse, accidents, sickness, war or death, it is quite important to help them with play therapy and with a narrative of such events in order to give such kids a tool to express their emotions and move forward. Cattanach presents in chapter 3 a Scottish story in which the death of 21 young men in a frozen lake turns into and is retold as a myth. This story is told by a fire during winter and serves to warn and comfort the community. Whether they are Russian, Vietnamese, or personal stories, they can help children feel relief and dissolve the anxiety of playing with the use of a pretend story rather than pushing them to talk about reality.
In chapter 4, Cattanach mentions how to change the dominant stories of children with attachment disorders and limited social skills. She reviews Bowlby’s theory and explains techniques for helping children to deal with anger, affect regulation, communicate, and trust adults. Role-play, rhymes, riddles, drawings, relaxation, music, and fairy tales are some of the tools to help adults and children reconnect.
School is a frightening and miserable place, says Cattanach, and children who are confused by social interaction must understand the way the school day is structured and the meaning of rules. There are playful methods teachers may use to handle impulsivity and bullying and to encourage friendship in children with attachment difficulties (chapter 5).
With narrative play therapy we can help children who have been hurt to cope with the adult world (teachers, parents, doctors). In pretend play and children’s narratives the “monsters” represent adults who have power over them. Through personal stories, folk tales, or even the popular Hansel and Gretel story, adults can help them to trust again, to reframe any distortions, and to praise creativity in order to achieve self-esteem (chapter 6).
In the final chapter, Cattanach presents stories and a list of books which each “mirror the child’s life experiences.” The first story, “How Mosquitoes Came to Be,” is about a giant who loves to kill people and is finally killed, cut into pieces, and burned by a brave man. As the brave man throws the giant’s ashes in the air, each piece of ash turns into a mosquito. The cloud of ashes becomes a cloud of mosquitoes that will sting men forever. Using this Tlingit (Native American) tale you can help children to understand that even a painful experience ends with a bearable shape, notwithstanding the fact that pain will always be present.
A beautiful Spanish book, Hijos de la primavera. Vida y palabras de los indios de América, coordinated by Federico Navarrete and published in 1994 by Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico, offers more than fifty folk tales from America (Coras, Amazonias, Huicholes, Mexicas, Quechuas, Seris, etc.). These include narratives about children’s and animals’ adventures, stories about the creation of the world, life stories, songs, riddles and plays. All these stories can be used, as Cattanach suggests, in narrative play therapy with Latin-American children to help them build their identities, too.
Harlene Anderson wrote: As human beings we have always related to each other by telling and listening to stories about ourselves and others. Both self and others-stories determine who we are. At best, we are no more than one of the many authors of the constantly changing narrative that becomes our self.
Mari Carmen García Mulsa
Mexico City, Mexico