“Pretend,” not pretence, is the proper context for sense-making

The strange thing about this silly if not desperate place between the real and really made-up is that it appears to be where most of us spend most of our time.

Michael Taussig, 1993, p. xvii

Consider bear cubs play-fighting. They are both playing and fighting and they are doing it in a safe-enough rehearsal space, one of make-believe at being the real world. It is transitional, somewhere safely between reality and fantasy. Like bear cubs, all learners profit from a make-believe space that suspends the disillusioning and dangerous consequences of a judging world. Toddlers learn by pretending at the real thing. Learners new to anything, learn free of angst when safe to grapple with things first experienced in an open “as if” manner, the likes of theatre, where things can be safely real and yet not-real.

It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self. 

Donald Winnicott, 1971/2005, p. 73

Just as there is play in a wobbly stool or a supple sapling, when Winnicott invokes it, he names the latitude of movement and articulation made possible when elements of a judging reality are held in just enough abeyance for unfettered musing. In play, the thing fantasied (upon, with, and in) is reality. That is, to play is to undertake “what if” adventures, dwelling neither wholly in prodigious fantasy nor in intransigent reality, but rather in some space between – a space that Winnicott first identified as transitional. The transitional object/phenomenon – classically, the child’s security blanket – broadens across a lifetime to include words (Daniel Stern, 1985/2000, pp. 170–174) and the cultural objects of school. 

There is a direct development from transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences. . . . I am assuming that cultural experiences are in direct continuity with play, the play of those who have not yet heard of games. 

Donald Winnicott, 1971/2005, pp. 69 & 135

In the play of the transitional space of pretend, two chairs under a blanket are, and are not, a house; a plastic straw is, but is not, a magic wand; a girl under a crown is, and is not, royalty; and a favourite blanket, as proxy for a loving parent – or later, favoured cultural objects, such as poetry, ideas, or acquisitions – is, and is not, the thing that reassures and soothes. Importantly, questions like “Was it already there, waiting to be found as such, or did you make it up to this significance?” are not to be asked (Winnicott, 1971/2005, p. 130). They transgress the boundaries of subjective and objective worlds and thus go prematurely to paradox. Asking them amounts to calling into question the significance of make-believe excursions into what could be, eclipsing that possibility before it is ready to survive scrutiny.

In the play of pretend…two chairs under a blanket are, and are not, a house; a plastic straw is, but is not, a magic wand; a girl under a crown is, and is not, royalty; and a favourite blanket, as proxy for a loving parent – or later, favoured cultural objects, such as poetry, ideas, or acquisitions – is, and is not, the thing that reassures and soothes.

Just as the ephemeral apparitions of dawn’s early morn become something other in the light of day; so too do unbidden understandings, visible only out of the corner of one’s eye, scatter under too-soon scrupulous attention. Where play is disavowed, learning, bereft of its chance for meaning, reduces to lifeless activity and parroted mechanical process. 

One Fathomable Small Theatre

I am seeking your help if only by having an audience. Call it help through visibility. Everyone ought to have the gift of an audience.

In an email from me to my doctoral supervisor, Brent Davis (August 26, 2012)

The metaphor of a theatre captures many of the characteristics I imagine in an inclusive learning setting. The play is of the real world yet safely not. It is a transitional space. Students read, interpret, and try-on-for-size cultural scripts in a kind of sanctuary of grace given for the striving of individual and collaborative processes. There are moments for memorising, improvisation, and eventual script-writing. Public viewing is ultimately meted in a healthy rhythm fitted to refining the work as warranted and supported against the sometimes-mercurial edges of a judging world. 

In time, buttressing walls can be progressively dismantled and the play taken to the streets and, through the graduates, enter into various institutional structures. There happens an inversion. Where once the “real world” was infused in mitigated portions into the theatre of play, now the theatre of play comes to be infused in mitigated portions into the real world. Actors, secure enough in such histories can continue the work of making poets of themselves and, profiting from having been found visible, can visit presence, audience, and witnessing forward. 

To be clear these are utopian imaginings and the devil is in the details. Any realisation turns on the presence of bona fide witnessing others – pedagogues, schools, societies whose centres-of-being survive beyond the figment of each learner’s own imaginative projecting.

I have chosen to look at society in terms of its healthiness . . . out of the health of its psychiatrically healthy members. I say this even though I do not know that at times the proportion of psychiatrically unhealthy members in a group may be too high, so that the healthy elements even in their aggregate of health cannot carry them. Then the social unit becomes itself a psychiatric casualty.

Donald Winnicott, 1971/2005, p. 190

What is at stake is nothing short of societies’ health or psychiatric casualty and the cascading effects that reverberate either way across the biosphere. The situation could not be more dire. It is for all of these reasons that relational psychoanalytic theory at the heart of teaching and learning matters now more than ever.


Stern, D. N. [Daniel]. (2000). The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis & developmental psychology. New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1985) 

Taussig, M. (1993). Mimesis and alterity: A particular history of the senses. New York, NY: Routledge.

Winnicott, D. W. (2005). Playing and reality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. (Original work published 1971) 

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