Have you ever wondered why it is we sing such bizarre, action-packed songs to babies? I’ve never given it much thought until the other day. As play therapists, we are ethically required to have supervision. This ensures our emotional safety and therefore the child’s too as well as providing a space to discuss the metaphors and other challenges the kids throw at us. Last week I was supervising a play therapist who is working with a child that has very little sense of self. I have worked with a number of similar children who can’t understand the physical feelings in their body let alone the emotional ones. However, when I was working with these kids I was at least 3 years removed from sensory baby play. Now, being right back in it with Awena, I had a reminder of why these crazy action songs are so important in a child’s development.
As a child begins encountering the world around them they very slowly start to understand what is part of them and what is not. This process is known as individualisation and can be a life long process (that is to be fully aware fo the Self and its external and internal feelings – let’s face it, we’re all finding out more about ourselves all the time). However, a child usually recognises they are separate from other beings around the age of two years old.
When we sing songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes we are helping our baby’s develop a sense of self. Nursery rhymes like Wind the Bobbin use the baby’s own body to make actions but then point to objects external to the baby helping to identify that which is not them. Row Row Row your Boat gives the baby internal sensations as they rock back and forwards. All these feelings are incredibly helpful in the baby’s understanding and development of self.
When a baby is born they have no sense of themselves as an individual and simply believe they are an extension of their mother. During their early years, they begin to recognise the mother as another and then come to the understanding they are completely separate. Separation anxiety might be familiar during these phases of development as the baby seeks to find themselves, but also wants to rush back to the safety and comfort it knows in its mother.
The children I mentioned above that my supervisee and I have seen in the play therapy setting may have missed out on a lot of these early experiences, including the seemingly ridiculous songs. Due to neglect or other forms of abuse, they have been unable to fully work through the process to differentiate themselves from another. They rely on those around them to tell them how they should feel, but generally, they will choose not to feel altogether as it appears safer. Often these children will not be able to tell when they feel hot or cold, hungry or full, tired or energised, sad or angry. Because the physical feelings are too difficult to distinguish, the emotional feelings are usually well and truly buried. In play therapy, the therapist can start to address those physical needs with a variety of techniques including nursery rhymes. Following this, emotions can thus be explored too.
So, keep going with your Hokey Cokey, your Dingle Dangle Scarecrow, and The Wheels on the Bus. They do more than we’ll ever understand!