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Play in the Service of Growth: The Sailboat Metaphor

By Katerina Tsomi, M.A., M.Sc.


I literally stumbled upon the term “gifted” a couple of years ago, when as a play therapist, I met a five-year-old child who displayed a perplexing profile. He was asynchronous, fast, smart, sensitive and intense. The adults around him seemed to misunderstand his motives and behaviour, but I soon realized that he was driven by various needs which remained unfulfilled. Although the child was safe, his needs for connection, belonging, esteem and self-actualization were clearly not addressed adequately. This resulted in him either suffering from anxiety or experiencing outbursts of rage which he couldn’t regulate.

As a play therapist, I knew, both from theory and experience, that this child’s psychological growth and emotional development was impeded at some level (Moustakas, 1955). What perplexed me was why adults around him could not understand what this child was trying to show: his unfulfilled needs. They seemed to not get that his tendency to move around and explore his environment, his honesty, his intense expression of feelings and his hunger for intellectual stimulation were actual needs like hunger, thirst and rest. I was even more perplexed with the fact that I kind of intuitively understood him, and I even identified with him on some level.

My desire to answer these burning questions brought me to the term giftedness, and I was soon mesmerized by this new but so familiar world. I read about asynchronous development, advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity (Rimm et al., 2018) and also about intrinsic intensities called overexcitabilities (Danies & Piechowki, 2008). Finally, I could recognize my young client in this literature, but I could also recognise myself. To cut a long story short, two years later I am studying at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity, trying to put into good use for the gifted my play therapy expertise.

Recently, as part of a classroom presentation, I was reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow believed that needs are like instincts and play a role in motivating behaviour. He talked about five levels of needs; namely, physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization (Cherry, 2022). Modern psychology proposes that the hierarchy of needs is like a pyramid: a person needs to satisfy the lower level needs, which are survival needs, in order to move to the higher level needs, which are growth needs. But this analogy appears to be inaccurate as Scott Barry Kaufman explains in two of his books, Transcend and Choose Growth. He stresses that Maslow never used a pyramid as a symbol for his hierarchy of needs. Kaufman developed an alternate metaphor, the sailboat, which aims to help us better understand how fundamental human needs operate. The boat represents the security needs of safety, connection and self-esteem; whereas, the sail stands for the growth needs of exploration, love and purpose (Kaufman & Feingold, 2022). The securely built boat and the open sail enables the sailboat to travel on the waters of life.

As I was pondering on the sailboat metaphor, I kept thinking how fundamental it is for gifted people of all ages to know, understand, accept and fulfill their differentiated needs. As a play therapist I work with metaphors all the time, and this one felt like a good idea for a StoryCraft. The concept of StoryCrafts is created by Joyce Mills and is an essential part of her play therapy model, StoryPlay©. StoryCrafts are transformative activities which are inspired from a story/metaphor. They help transform the metaphor into a tangible form in an artistic way (Mills & Crowley, 2014). As a practice exercise, Kaufman & Feingold (2022) proposed to the reader to draw a shape of his/her sailboat and fill in what it looks like right now. I expanded this idea: what about creating a sailboat as a StoryCraft which will enable further growth and transformational healing?

I decided to try the idea out with my own children, eight-year-old twice-exceptional V and five-year-old gifted G. As the results were beyond my imagination, I will share the whole process here with the hope to serve as an inspiration to both parents and therapists of gifted and twice exceptional children. First, I told the children the following story, inspired from Kaufman’s symbolism: “The other day, I was taking a walk by the sea. The sea was calm, and a mild wind was tenderly caressing my face. As I turned my face towards the sea to admire its eternal beauty, my gaze fell on a sailboat which was traveling on the smooth waters. The boat was sliding safely and with flow on the calm waters, and the sail was open, pushed gently by the light morning breeze. As I noticed the grace with which the sailboat traveled, I wondered what kind of new worlds it was going to explore with its safe boat and its growing sail.” When I ended the story, I added: “You know, each of us is like a sailboat. In order to travel far and explore the world, we both need a safe boat and a growing sail. I wonder how your sailboats look? Would you like to create them?”


The boys were enthusiastic, but they said they wanted to create one sailboat that they would share. As a non-directive play therapist and a StoryPlay® facilitator, I am used to allowing children to lead the process in their own pace and enter their experience as it is played out (Lindo et al., 2012). This philosophy underlies the whole sailboat StoryCraft process.

Firstly, the boys used clay to create the boat. They decided to build it piece by piece, cutting and connecting together little pieces of clay. This process took some time, and gradually V expressed his anxiety that the boat would not be able to hold its pieces together, so he decided to add some glue on it to make sure it would be safe and stable. This is exactly how a StoryCraft works: by experiencing the transformation of information into a concrete, hands-on creation, the child experiences in his/her body the meaningful message that leads to healing. For the sail, children asked me to draw the sail’s shape on paper and to create the mast. After they experienced growth facilitated by their mum, the boys let the sailboat dry and “rest” with the purpose to revisit it the next day.

The next day, we revisited the sailboat, and the children were happy that it felt concrete and ready to open its sail. I reminded them that we too are like sailboats, and I asked them what makes them feel safe. V answered that the house made him safe, and G said that he felt safe when he eats and when he remembers breast-feeding as a baby. These statements were in line with the boat’s needs of safety and connection (Kaufman, 2022). Then I asked them what makes their sails open. V talked about Minecraft, which enables him to build houses, and his love for sweets because they have a nice taste and make him relax. G mentioned breastfeeding again because it made him feel happy, fighting with his brother, running fast like the Flash and fighting Herobrine, Minecraft’s strongest monster.


It is important to notice the metaphor behind what each child said. V’s visual-spatial intelligence is obvious both in the boat’s and the sail’s needs: he focuses on 3D constructs and gains his power from building. G, on the other hand, displays interpersonal intelligence which is played out in the breastfeeding connection and the fighting, another way to enter a relationship. Again, the statements were in line with the needs of exploration and love, which Kaufman placed in the sail (Kaufman, 2022).

After talking, the time had come to paint the sailboat in order for it to be ready for traveling. Well, what happened next was exactly that! The sailboat “did travel” my boys! They began painting the boat and the sail using finger paints (they even created a pirates’ flag on it) but the touch of the paint ignited their sensual overexcitabilities and an intense embodiment process for both of them. During the Embodiment stage of play, children’s early experiences are expressed through bodily movements and the senses, and their concept of body-self is strengthened (Jennings, 1999). V and G painted their hands and arms and left their imprints on the wash basin deliberately, V as a pirate and G as the Flash. When their senses felt satisfied, they washed the paint off their hands and continued their play outdoors, taking the sailboat with them.

The Embodiment process had kicked in the Projection stage of play. During this stage, children respond to the world beyond their bodies, relate to different objects and place them in shapes and constellations. Gradually, children create stories which they project on the objects (Cattanach, 1997). V and G took their weapons with them and arranged them around the sailboat in a ritualistic way, protecting and fighting for it. Then they cut leaves from a tree and used them to create shapes relevant to their growth process: V created Minecraft tools, such as shovels and picks, and weapons, such as tridents and swords. G connected two leaves together with duct tape, symbolizing connection. He also drew Herobrine, captured by a policeman and put in jail.

That was the end of the sailboat experience. As a play therapist, I was impressed both by the symbolic meanings my children attached to the metaphorical task of the sailboat but also by the intense growth process that the task ignited spontaneously in them. As a mum, I enjoyed a rich emotional experience with my children which I highly recommend. I only have one caution for parents: beware of your OEs around mess!

____________________________________________________

Katerina Tsomi, M.A., M.Sc., is a resilience-focused play therapist, psychotherapist,

person-centered counselor and clinical supervisor in play and creative therapies. Her robust academic background, intense experiential training and wide experience allow her to engage deeply and intensely with her clients and to address their diverse needs. She conducts her private practice both online and in person in her office in Athens, Greece. Katerina is also a StoryPlay® facilitator and she facilitates StoryPlay® trainings and other experiential and creative workshops. In 2020, one of her positive disintegrations led her into the field of giftedness and neurodivergence. She discovered that she is a twice-exceptional adult and, from then on she deeply and intensely explores this new/familiar world. She is trained in gifted-specific psychology by Intergifted and as a SENG Model Parent Group Facilitator. She is also an Ed.D. student in Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education. These days, Katerina’s therapeutic practice focuses on gifted and neurodivergent people of all ages. Katerina is a mum of two gifted children, one of which is twice-exceptional. This parenting adventure further fuels her giftedness-related explorations.


References

Cattanach, A. (1997). Children’s stories in Play therapy. London, Great Britain: Jessica Kingsley.

Cherry, K. (2022, August 14.). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Very well mind. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4136760

Daniels, S. & Piechowski, M. M. (Eds.) (2008). Living with Intensity: Understanding the sensitivity, excitability, and the emotional development of gifted children, adolescents, and adults. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Jennings, S. (1999). Introduction to developmental play. London, Great Britain: Jessica Kingsley.

Kaufman, S. B., & Feingold, J. H. (2022). Choose growth: A workbook for transcending trauma, fear, and self-doubt. Tarcher perigee.

Lindo, N. A., Chung, C. F., Carlson, S., Sullivan, J. M., Akay, S. & Meany-Walen, K. K. (2012). The impact of child-centered play therapy training on attitude, knowledge, and skills. International Journal of Play Therapy, 21(3), 149-166.

Mills, J. C., & Crowley, R. J. (2014). Therapeutic metaphors for children and the child within (2nd edn.). Routledge.

Moustakas, C. E. (1955). Emotional adjustment and the play therapy process. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 86(1), 79-99.

Rimm, S. B., Siegle, D., & Davis, G. A. (2018). Education of the Gifted and Talented (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.



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