A Young Boy Who Could Not Play

“How did you get to work today?” Ben, an adorable 4-year-old boy entered the playroom, came right up close, and asked. I told him that I took the train. “You must have taken the local 1 train, because the express does not stop on 86th street,” he said with noticeable confidence. “Where did you change for the local?” As it turned out, Ben knew not only all the subway stops and where to transfer from express to local, he also knew the names of every single stop in the New York City Subway system. His parents, who were observing our exchange, seemed both pleased and exasperated. “Transportation is his passion,” Mom said. “When I try to play with him with anything else he will have a huge tantrum or check out,” said Dad with visible frustration. Ben proceeded to discuss trains and transportation with me. When I felt that he was calm enough, I asked him to use my train set to show me how it works when one wants to change from the express to the local on the way to my office.

Quiet. It was as if, for the first time in his short life, he had to show rather than to tell, a whole new domain and way of being with another. There was a long silence in the room as the two trains came to an abrupt stop on the local and express tracks. I said to him, “The little people here [pointing to the express] want to get to the local train to go to Ron’s office.” He stared at me blankly and began to fidget. He turned to his mom and said to her pleadingly, “I want to go home now.” He was gathering some air for a major fit. It felt like I had only a second or two before we might see one of these spectacular tantrums that his dad described earlier. I quickly took three Post-It notes and wrote on them ‘Express’, ‘Local’, and ‘96th Street’, all the while repeating to him in a soothing, reassuring voice, “I know what these people need in order to find where they are going we need to help them!” Ben watched me as he approached the door–about to grab the handle and run out to the street, which he does at home. Something made him stop and watch. Suddenly, he smiled. His face completely changed, his shoulders dropped down from his ears, and he said “This is the 96th Street Station.” He immediately came back, sat down and carefully moved each character–“Mom,” “Dad,” and “Ben”–from the express train to the local. He looked at me with approval:

“So you know the station.” Ben was so fascinated by his ability to create what he saw in his mind with the trains that he did not notice when it was time to go. “I can make people move! Next time I will show you how they swipe their Metrocard!” he said on his way out.

Mom and Dad reported on our next appointment that Ben has taken all his old toys that had little people in them and, for the first time, began animating them, having them speak to each other. There was even one family which sat at the dinner table discussing, of course, which mode of transportation each one of them took to work and to school. The path was now open for Ben to share his fears and hopes with his parents and people closest to him through representation and play. His mind, filled with ideas, could now connect to his fingers and make these little people feel and think and let us know his inner world.

IMPORTANT: In order to preserve clients’ privacy, case material is based on composites with biographical information altered.