Playing with Alice

Fairytale-CastleAlice was referred to me at the age of five by a team of health service professionals who were offering counselling support to Alice’s father and his new girlfriend. Alice was suffering from the loss of her mother who had died of cancer when Alice was three years old. The little girl had watched helplessly as her mother had slowly deteriorated before her eyes. Her father’s inability to come to terms with the loss of his wife, Alice’s mother, had led to his new girl friend leaving the family home on repeated occasions. This obviously had an impact on Alice.

Alice was a pale, solemn little girl with fine curly brown hair and large grey eyes. She was reluctant to join her classmates in their activities at the group table in school and was refusing to read or write.

I suggested that rather than insisting on group cooperation, a place should be kept for Alice at the activity table so that she could join her group when she felt ready to do so but meanwhile she should be allowed to sit separately so that she could draw and paint, activities which she enjoyed, which would enable her to freely express the painful emotions she seemed to be holding inside.

I hoped that a period of six weekly sessions of creative play would provide Alice with another channel of expression. I was offered one of the smaller classrooms to work in and arranged to see Alice for a total of six play sessions on a once a week basis.

I limited my props to a pair of ‘magic’ slippers (A child’s pair of stretchable  slippers in spangled brocade) and a piece of music previously used in a research project to explore the use of music as a healing agent to enhance language development. 

I took swathes of silky, diaphanous material in the clear spectrum colours of the rainbow, as well as darker murky colours to create costumes for characters in the stories that would be the key to her healing process. Also a small golden box of mixed polished crystals.

At the beginning of each session without prompting, Alice placed the magic slippers on her feet before entering the world of her imagination. Her favourite fairy story was sleeping beauty and in her shortened version she cast herself as the princess and I was given the role of the prince. My first instruction was to ride around the table on a pretend horse until I eventually found my princess alone and asleep in her castle surrounded by brambles.

Pretending to cut my way through the thicket I found my little princess and the kiss on the cheek awoke her from her slumbers. One day early on in our sessions she informed me in a calm, grave voice that she “had been asleep for two years.”  This was the length of time that had passed since Alice’s mother had died of cancer. This was another confirmation, demonstrating the healing power of fairy tales, the stories are held deep within our unconscious. They are key to helping children make sense of their experiences in life enabling them to find ways of dealing positively with their pain. In Alice’s version of the story the prince and princess hugged and rode away on the pretend horse to live happily ever after.

In another story she created, Alice as a princess found a wicked witch who was dying, she said that she couldn’t save the witch’s life, although she had given her food and warm blankets. This indicated to me that in her own short life she had been unable to make her own mother well and had helplessly watched her grow old and ill before her eyes, until she was eventually taken away from her forever. I felt that to complete the healing Alice needed to separate her mother from the cancer she had suffered and that had caused her death.

Together we created the following story: There was once an ugly old witch who became ill.  She lived alone in a cold rickety house in the forest. The witch was really a princess who had had a spell put on her. One day a beautiful child was riding her horse through the woods and came upon the witch who had been out gathering sticks for her fire but had collapsed in the cold. The child gave the witch food and magic crystals to make her well. She visited the witch each day and noticed the witch changing before her eyes. As she slowly recovered, the witch grew more and more beautiful. She told the child that a spell had been put on her but that she had been able to break free from the spell with the help of a child who had been unafraid and kind to her. I was cast in the role of the sick and ugly old witch and Alice played the child who was riding by on her horse. Although the witch was hunched over and dressed in dark murky clothing, the child was unafraid and told the witch to hold the precious stones she had chosen for her. She gave the witch food and eventually through kindness and frequent visits the witch became well again and the dark clothes fell away to reveal beautiful rainbow colours underneath as the witch was transformed back into a beautiful princess thanks to the love and kindness of the child.

I held fortnightly review meetings with Alice’s teacher who reported that Alice was beginning to integrate into her class group once more and was choosing to sit at the table with the others. She wanted to read and write and asked to be allowed to do so. To her delight her teacher discovered that although Alice had not read aloud in class before, she could understand the words in her reading book and was only a little behind the others.

We had one follow up appointment three months later in the playroom at the clinic when Alice was brought by her father’s girlfriend. Initially Alice played with the toy oven and made a pretend meal for herself and me, following our meal she asked to play the favourite music that I had asked her to bring with her which was ‘Tragedy,’ a popular hit song of the day.

As the music swelled, Alice’s new confident self emerged and she transformed herself into a Spanish flamenco dancer by tying flame coloured material around her waist and assuming the appropriate arrogant posture. She beckoned me to follow as she strutted across the floor expressing her own remembered tragedy through the movement, words and music.

I discovered that her father’s relationship had stabilised and there was a growing bond with the young woman who had brought her. No further help was requested but the door was left open for further contact if required.

I did not hear from the family again.

(Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.)