Playing and the Transitional Space

What comes to mind when we think the word ‘play’? Perhaps we think of a group of people huddled together over a board, or moving around a ball in a field.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote a great deal about the idea of ‘play’, and denoted something much more fundamental than this. Deriving his ideas from observations of mothers with babies, Winnicott understood ‘play’ and the ‘transitional space’ to be at the heart of creativity, relationships and mental health, not just for mothers and babies, but for all of us throughout life.

Let us look at a scenario in the life of a mother with a little baby, fictional but all too common.

The mother wakes up and goes to check on the baby lying in his cradle. She calls out to him by a name. The baby responds by making a sound. Is the sound a happy one? Or one that betrays discomfort? The mother can tell. She checks the baby for possible sources of discomfort. Maybe he needs to be moved. Perhaps the diaper needs changing. Perhaps he just wants to be cuddled a little. She picks up the baby in her arms, holds him close to her body, and walks around, talking to him, comfortable in the assurance that the baby understands – if not the words, the intended feelings expressed in her tone.

Now, the baby touches the mother’s face with his little hand. The mother looks back at the baby, indulgently. The baby moves around his hand on the mother’s face, exploring her cheeks, eyes, hair. The mother lets him do it, but then, mischeviously, pulls her face back with a smile. The baby smiles too, his eyes widen, and he leans forward to continue to touch her face.

This little episode demonstrates the space of playing in the relationship between the mother and the baby. It is a spontaneity which manifests not in the baby, not in the mother, but in the space between them, which Winnicott calls the transitional space. It is this space, partly created by the baby, partly by the mother; not in either of them but of both of them; and non-existent without both of them, which is the space of play. Winnicott called this the ‘transitional space’.

Interestingly, play and the existence of transitional space require both mother and baby to be constantly changing, to becoming something other than they are in the moment. For the play to continue, the mother pulls her face back, and the baby, on his part, continues the play by leaning forward to touch her face again.


Consider a poet writing a poem. The poem exists in the space between the poet himself, and an outer entity, which may be the imagined audience of the poet, or another part of the poet’s self, put away as a repository of the poet’s creativity, a record of his feelings, identified with a blog, or a diary.

Between the poet and this ‘other’, the poem comes into being. It is made possible because of the spontaneity of the poet, and the receptivity of the other, as perceived by the poet. I would even add that the other, if it is an audience, is not merely receptive, but also contributing to the poem, and enriching it, perhaps not by composing it together with the poet, but by praise, feedback, acceptance, and so on.

To me, it seems, all work becomes fulfilling and enjoyable when it acquires these two qualities of the transitional space and play. The well-known term ‘flow’, when a person has an experience of loss of time, and loss of self, while being totally absorbed in his work, is one such example of total spontaneity being poured into a transitional space.


Transitional space makes healthy relationships possible. There is me, and there is you. The two of us interact, because we share certain common values. We can talk about those, and experience joy in our sharing of something that is not quite mine, not quite yours. These common values may be something as particular as an interest in ancient philosophy, or something as universal as feelings of affection.


From this perspective, we may say that suffering is the inability to play. Indeed, Winnicott clearly stated that the purpose of psychotherapy is to enable a person to play. When a person gets locked up too strictly in his own personality structures, he is unable to create, unable to give himself to other persons, and finds himself wracked by a sense of frustration and loneliness.

To be oneself means to manifest oneself outside oneself. It means stepping outside the bonds of the usual behaviour one indulges in, to create something new, something different. It could be a spontaneous, affectionate conversation with someone. It could be a job well done. When one breaks out of one’s habitual modes of being, there is a sense of joy, which makes all pain bearable. For those who do not find playing possible, suffering becomes a constant experience in life.

Winnicott’s ideas about playing and the transitional space have much to teach us in our lives. Through noticing times when we fail to play, and fail to create transitional spaces, we can point to potential areas of growth in our lives.

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971)

“The potential space between baby and mother, between child and family, between individual and society or the world, depends on experience which leads to trust. It can be looked upon as sacred to the individual in that it is here that the individual experiences creative living” – Winnicott


~ by tdcatss on November 9, 2012.

5 Responses to “Playing and the Transitional Space”

  1. This was really interesting, Kaif! I hadn’t thought about when writing a poem, the intended audience also comes into play. Thanks for sharing!

  2. thanks debbie :)

  3. Really nice article…. it really brings up importance of spontaneity… a way of being..

  4. thanks

  5. Hello….I am looking for translation of Hansi Khanakti Hui english translation. I am unable to go in the your blog archive to find it. Appreciate if you could share the link on shishirgupta77 at

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