On the Structure of Inner and Outer Spielraum — the Play Space of the Schizophrenic Child

  • Rudolf Ekstein
  • Elaine Caruth


Play has been described as the language of the child and, like the adult’s dream, may be considered the royal road to his unconscious (Erikson, 1950). Play, like language, serves an intrapsychic as well as an interpersonal function; it is a means by which the child resolves inner conflicts; it enables him to master the passively experienced traumatic events of his macrocosmic real world by actively repeating them in his microcosmic play world. Play is also a means of communicating these inner events and is thus object-directed, particularly in instances where the child has already achieved the capacity for more advanced object relations. Play helps develop and strengthen structures capable of delay functions, and thus furthers the future development of adaptive goal-oriented behavior. Play can be described in terms of its content—the play, as well as its structure—the Spielraum, or play space (Erikson, 1940). Through his play and through his playing, the child recreates his life space, the meaningfully cathected experiences of both his inner and outer worlds, in the microcosmos of the play space. The child’s earliest autoplay with his body can be understood in terms of the beginning individuation experience, and his playing, with the notion that there is a self and object; fingers and toes that are “me-here,” a nipple and milk that are “her-there.” Somewhat more advanced play was described when Freud (1955) observed a child roll a spool of thread back and forth, accompanied by the words, “gone; there,” thus reflecting the child’s attempts to master the notions of separation and reunion. Such playing indicated that the child had begun to establish a capacity for object constancy, so that out of sight was not completely out of mind; in fact, was helped to remain in mind, so to speak, through the very act of playing. Parenthetically, that play was expressed on a particular level of communication—that of play action—(Ekstein and Friedman, 1966) in which fantasies are woven around a toy. Such play reflects a fairly advanced level of psychic structure and functioning that is not always available to the schizophrenic child. Ekstein and Friedman (1966) refer to a schema for ordering different levels of communication, indicating the progressive development of the capacity for goal-oriented thought as it evolves and advances from the initial phase of pure impulse expression to higher levels, such as acting out, role play, and rational fantasy.


Autistic Child Delay Function Outer World Life Space Play Space 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1976

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rudolf Ekstein
    • 2
  • Elaine Caruth
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Child PsychiatryUniversity of California at Los AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Childhood Psychosis Project, Reiss-Davis Child Study Center and Department of Medical PsychologyUniversity of California at Los AngelesUSA

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