ISSN-2348-8824 (Print)

RNI No: HARENG/2021/35200
Vol, XIV, No. 1 August 2023 – Nov-2023


This paper explores the integral role of play, creativity, and art modalities in early childhood development and education. Current educational paradigms often restrict creative expression, leading to mind-body disconnection which may further have adverse socio-emotional effects on the learners. However, research in developmental psychology and neuroscience emphasizes the positive impact of play on self-awareness, imagination, cognitive and social growth, and well-being of learners.

Art education and creative arts therapies leverage modalities including art, music, drama, and dance psychotherapeutically to address childhood mental health issues. With specialized training, creative arts therapists scaffold emotional processing and self-integration. These embodied practices show versatile clinical utility across settings and populations grounded in psychological theory. Fostering creativity and playful exploration honours children’s holistic learning and expression. Integrating these developmental insights into learning can enrich educational practices.




Within many traditional educational environments, physical activity and play are relegated to limited portions of the school day, such as recess or designated Physical Education classes. According to Bergen and Woodin (2022), students often eagerly anticipate and embrace opportunities for playful games and sports. This enthusiasm highlights the integral developmental role of play and movement for ensuring overall well-being and progress across developmental domains.

Developmental psychology research indicates that play activities scaffold key childhood milestones including object permanence, secure attachment bonds, and social cognition (Jean-Louis et al., 2022; Yogman et al., 2018). Simple games such as peek-a-boo foster understanding of object permanence and caregiver reliability. As Csikszentmihalyi (2014) observed, free play allows children to negotiate social roles and norms. Restricting play and physicality in educational settings may impede cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional maturation.

Integrating movement, sports, and open-ended games throughout the school curriculum highlights play’s neurodevelopmental necessity. This enables continued cognitive, creative, and social growth.  Harnessing play’s benefits in the classroom may enhance both learning and well-being.

Some students might find a sense of play and freedom in creative pursuits offered as Art, Dance, and Music classes in schools. The importance of creativity goes way deeper than just a creative skill. Winnicott (1971) emphasizes on the importance of creativity by noting:

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

According to Winnicott (1971), play provides a crucial opportunity for integrating the full self-including emotions, imagination, and relationships. Through creative play, children explore and make sense of their inner worlds and experiences. Play is an essential part of the healthy development of a child, where the child feels free to experiment and work through complex feelings without the fear of being judged.

Creativity fostered by play allows the child to discover and connect with his or her authentic self. Restricting play could, therefore, hamper this process of self-integration and growth that Winnicott viewed as central throughout one’s life. Winnicott’s ideas accentuate the immense developmental and therapeutic value of play across one’s lifespan.

Developmental psychology highlights how children’s earliest learning and communication revolve around bodily sensations and physical expressions (Piaget, 1952; Montessori, 1995). As infants explore the world through their five senses, the body becomes the primary conduit for acquiring information. Likewise, pre-verbal communication manifests physically through gestures, movements, and vocalizations to signal needs and feelings (Iverson, 2010) – reaching out, withdrawing, pushing, pulling, bending, stretching, rolling, yawning, crying, and giggling.

Universally, the body through movement forms the first mode of language and communication. This bodily mode of sensing, relating, and exchanging meaning, establishes the foundation for cognition and language acquisition. While the language we use for communication, including the medium of this paper, is acquired, learned, and man-made, the language of movement, sounds, and playing is a universal human behaviour.

During my professional experience of working with children, I have observed that children are often expected to refrain from showing bodily expressions during their early developmental years in order to discipline them. To illustrate, the common phrases heard in schools are, ‘please maintain the decorum of the school,’ ‘be silent,’ and ‘keep quiet.’

Moreover, young learners are allowed to creatively engage with play in scheduled school classes of ‘physical education, art, music, dance’. This portrays the beginning of mind-body partitioning in Western thought (Radford et al.,2018). In contrast to embodied knowledge, formal education environments often prioritize verbal and written language over embodied non-verbal processing (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). This puts children at the risk of disconnecting from their intuitive wisdom and manner of discovery – the body’s “first language” representing a key developmental phase (Sheets-Johnstone, 2010).

Integrating movement, sensory engagement, and non-verbal processing into education can help combat this mind-body divide by honouring the body’s ongoing role in meaning-making (Sheets Johnstone, 2010). Play and physicality are not merely recreational but epistemologically valuable for development. As psychologists and educators, it becomes imperative to recognize the significance of embodied cognition in enriching our practices and nurturing holistic integration.

Neuroscience and Creativity

The intersection of neuroscience and creativity in early childhood has garnered increasing research attention. Neuroimaging studies reveal that pre-school-aged children exhibit greater connectivity between regions linked to cognitive control, imagination, and emotional processing compared to older children and adults, suggesting heightened creative capacity (Kleibeuker et al., 2013). The prefrontal cortex, which governs complex cognition, develops rapidly between ages 3-5 years (Giedd et al., 1999). This facilitates children’s conceptual expansion, curiosity, and innovation (Rosen, 1975).

Likewise, the brain’s plasticity enables robust synaptic formation and gray matter growth during early childhood (Gopnik, 2017). Neurogenesis in the hippocampus, vital for memory and learning, peaks around age 2 years before decreasing (Jabès et al., 2010). According to dynamic systems theory, children’s cognitive flexibility capitalizes on this neurological malleability (Thelen, 2005). Play likewise stimulates neuroplasticity and cognitive growth (Panksepp et al., 2003). Unstructured play promotes divergent thinking, problem-solving, and imaginative cognition associated with creativity (Vygotsky, 1967).

Research indicates that children’s neurological conditions of hyper connectivity, plasticity, and rapid frontal development enable heightened creative cognition, curiosity, and innovation when given developmentally appropriate conditions of play and exploration are duly provided (Liu et al., 2020; Rosen, 1975).  Integrating neuroscience and developmental findings can inform educational approaches to optimally nurture creativity. Further, research highlights the tangible impact of arts education on brain development and emerging competencies in childhood. Active engagement in visual art, dance/movement, and music strengthens neural circuits supporting sensorimotor integration, cognition and social-emotional skills.

Visual artistic activities enhance right hemispheric activation, visuospatial processing, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor control through drawing, painting, and manipulation of materials (Sowden et al., 2015; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2004). These experiences facilitate reading and writing fluency through visual-motor integration.

Dance and movement activate motor and sensory regions, supporting bodily coordination and kinetic abilities (Brown et al., 2006). Dance education’s emphasis on rhythm, balance, and bodily sequencing bolsters cerebellar connectivity for movement and proprioception (Brown et al., 2006; Molinari et al., 2009). Embodied cognition research indicates that anchoring abstract concepts and ideas in physical experience and memory enhances learning and retention (Kontra et al., 2015).

Engaging in music reinforces auditory processing networks and spatiotemporal reasoning (Rauscher & Hinton, 2011). Playing an instrument activates auditory, visual, and motor regions, boosting audio processing, working memory, and executive functions (Schlaug et al., 2005). This strengthened neural scaffolding translates to benefits in areas such as Math and planning.

In summary, neuroscience highlights the diverse developmental impacts of arts education on sensorimotor maturation, cognition, and emerging skills. This neuroscientific evidence confirms arts’ multifaceted developmental benefits for nurturing social-emotional, and academic skills during early childhood years. Integrating artistic opportunities in education provides young brains enriched stimulation.

Another contributing factor which fosters creativity is ‘boredom’. Although, parents try their best to dodge the experience of boredom for the child, it may be counterintuitive to their development. The following section explores the links between boredom and creativity. It focusses on the ways in which  facing boredom constructively can cultivate children’s sense of self, flexibility, and inner resources.  Rather than distracting children from boredom, there may be benefits in mindfully embracing this state.

Boredom and Creativity

Observed during the course of my work with children, in the context of the current competitive world, children are expected to ace different aspects of their life. While such opportunities facilitate growth, they also put pressure on the young learners. This leaves a little place for children to experience the void of stillness, vacuum, and boredom, important in creating space for creativity to emerge organically. Gotthold (2008) notes the ‘adults’ demands that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests them’ as an ‘oppressive demand’. Eastwood et al. (2012) also points out the relevance of boredom in fostering divergent thinking, reflection, and tolerance for mundane tasks – skills that translate to reduced anxiety, depression, and addiction risks in adulthood.

The constant digital immersion keeps children occupied, but leads to diminished creativity due to inadequate boredom (Viglione, 2022).

Shifting of an affective state of dullness, disinterest, and deadness to a different state is understood as emerging from self and mutually regulated treatment process. (Gotthold, 2008)

In other words, allowing constructive boredom teaches children that limited stimulation need not equate emotional distress. Balancing external stimulation along with offering space for young minds to independently explore inner worlds may best cultivate cognitive flexibility, innovation, and mental well-being.

In a chapter named ‘On Being Bored,’ Phillips (1993) postulates

Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be.

 Why are we talking about the Mental Health of a Child?

Mental health in early childhood is foundational for lifelong well-being, underscoring the imperative of early socio-emotional support. Epidemiological data indicates that 10-20% of children worldwide experience mental health conditions (Kieling et al., 2011). Childhood onset predicts greater symptom severity and functional impacts in adulthood (Kim-Cohen et al., 2003; Kessler et al., 2005).  Neuroscientific evidence shows early childhood marks a sensitive period for socioemotional development, establishing neural pathways influential across the lifespan (Schore & McIntosh, 2011).

In India, psychiatric issues affect 12-16% of children under 10 years, with many lacking accesses to care (Malhotra & Patra, 2014). The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues among children (Tiwari et al., 2021). Adverse childhood experiences including abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction raise risks for downstream mental and physical disorders via toxic stress effects on nervous system development (Bernet & Stein, 1999; Felitti et al.,1998). Integrating socio-emotional well-being into early childhood policies, education, and clinical practice is critical owing to childhood’s significance in shaping trajectories. Therefore, every ounce of prevention holds immense value.

Research indicates that anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and phobias show high prevalence among Indian children under 10 years of age (Behere, Basnet & Campbell, 2017). Social anxiety is rising from excessive academic pressures. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is estimated to affect 5-10% of school-aged children (Venkata & Panicker, 2013).  Depressive disorders have an estimated prevalence of 0.5-9% which increases with age (Malhotra & Patra, 2014).

Behavioural issues such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder frequently emerge during the school-age years, prompting referrals for aggression, defiance, and rule-breaking (Khan & Sharma, 2014). Reported rates for autism spectrum disorder are around 1-3 per 1000 children in India, with social-communication impairment and restrictive, repetitive behaviours marking key deficits (Raina et al., 2017) while the referrals show a higher level of prevalence. Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia hinder academic achievement in 15-20% of students (Karande, Mahajan & Kulkarni, 2009).

Enuresis, encopresis, psychosomatic issues such as chronic headaches, and sleep disorders including sleep terrors are also frequently seen in this age group (Jat et al., 2011; Sarkar et al., 2013; Sharma et al., 2018). Early screening and socio-emotional interventions can greatly mitigate adverse developmental impacts.

Contemporary discourse on children’s mental healthcare often takes a narrow view focusing on neurocognitive or psychological disorders, framing psychotherapy as serving only a minimal subset of children (Malchiodi, 2005). However, a growing research base emphasizes the value of creative arts therapies in nurturing socio-emotional skills and processing emotions of children through integrative modalities bridging mind and body (Sajnani et al., 2017; McNiff, 2009).

Mainstream education often prioritizes stillness and cognitive focus, minimizing body-based expression and worsening mind-body dissociation (Rousseau et al., 2005). These pathological risks lead to disconnection between children’s psychological and somatic reactions and cause distress which manifests physically as gastrointestinal, neurological, or psychosomatic symptoms while being consciously repressed (van der Kolk, 2014).

Without skills to verbalize nuanced emotions, children internalize harmful assumptions about complex interpersonal dynamics which they cannot analyze critically, like blaming themselves for parental conflict (Rogers, 1993). Performing socially expected behaviours further divides mind and body (Malchiodi, 2005). Creative arts therapies can bridge this disconnect by utilizing play, movement, music, art, and drama to integrate mind and body while processing experiences (Brooke, 2006; Tortora, 2005).

Rather than purely cognitive processing, creative modalities allow children to access memories and feelings bypassing conscious control (Malchiodi, 2005). Creative experimentation enables children to explore challenging topics indirectly through imagery, role play, etc. (Rogers, 1993). Externalizing inner worlds tangibly facilitates coping with overwhelming emotions (Glazer, 1998).

Engaging the body and mind may strengthen capacities to tolerate and regulate difficult feelings otherwise repressed and may later arise as pathology (van der Kolk, 2014). Nonverbal processing enhances self-esteem, relationships, and resilience, mitigating downstream mental illness (Sajnani et al., 2017). Just as learning disorders impair academics, lapses in emotional integration disrupt socio-emotional growth. Accessing creative arts therapies’ integrative benefits could be considered essential, not elective, for developing selfhood.

Creative Arts Therapies

The following section introduces a plethora of Creative Arts Therapies, all of which are prevalent in India and are adapting to the socio-emotional-cultural needs of children.

Art Therapy

Art Therapy is an integrated mental health and human services profession that enhances the lives of individuals, families, and communities through a combination of therapeutic art-making, creative process work, and applied psychological theories. It focuses on the human experience by engaging in a psychotherapeutic relationship, facilitated by a practitioner who is professionally trained in the field. The Art Therapy Association of India (TATAI), 2019

Art therapy provides children with an age-appropriate, non-threatening avenue for symbolic self-expression, externalization, and emotional processing. Creative modalities such as drawing, painting, and sculpture foster communication, coping, and integration of the complex experiences in children who lack the verbal capacity to articulate directly (Brooke, 2006; Rubin, 2005).

Dance Movement Therapy

Dance movement therapy is a psychotherapeutic method that uses movement and creative expression to further socio-emotional, cognitive, and somatic integration. This approach is based on the principle that the body and mind are integrated. The Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy (IADMT), 2020

Dance movement therapy borrows from the idea that any action is a movement facilitated by the body and dance is a mode of self-expression. It is often misunderstood as a dance class, which is totally different in terms of its aim, goals, and structure. It fosters the total functioning of an individual and is for individuals of all ages, gender, races, and ethnic backgrounds in individual, couples, family, and group therapy formats (IADMT, 2020).

Music Therapy

Music Therapy is the clinical & evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), 1998

Music therapy engages young children through developmentally appropriate, multisensory experiences incorporating rhythm, melody, and movement. Active music participation enhances communication, expression, motor skills, cognitive processing, and socio-emotional development.  Creative musical engagement provides a medium for play, self-discovery, and externalization of inner experiences (McFerran, 2010; Pasiali, 2012).

Drama Therapy

Dramatherapy is a form of Psychotherapy. Drama therapists are both clinicians and artists that draw on their knowledge of theatre and therapy to use as a medium for psychological therapy that may include drama, story-making, music, movement, and art; to work with any issue that has presented itself. British Association of Dramatherapy (BADTH)

Drama therapists employ diverse techniques from theatre including embodiment, movement, storytelling, role-play, and dramatic projection to achieve therapeutic goals. With a background in theatre, health, or education, drama therapists work across settings – schools, mental health services, social sector, and rehabilitation centers – leveraging drama’s embodied cognition to foster well-being.

 How are these therapies different from Dance, Music, or Art Classes?

While creative arts therapies and mainstream arts education both involve artistic modalities, crucial differences exist between their clinical versus pedagogical objectives, therapeutic process versus curriculum structure, and specialized psychotherapeutic versus generalist arts training (Malchiodi, 2005; Rousseau et al., 2005). Whereas arts classes in schools aim to build artistic skills and cultural appreciation, creative arts therapies leverage modalities such as drama, music, and visual arts to address students’ psychological and developmental needs (Coholic et al., 2009; Sajnani et al., 2017).

Specifically, creative arts therapists undergo rigorous training in areas such as psychological theory, ethics, therapeutic applications of art modalities, clinical assessment, and therapeutic relationship dynamics (Brooke, 2006; McNiff, 2009). By contrast, arts educators are trained as skilled practitioners and instructors in their artistic discipline (Malchiodi, 2005). For school children receiving creative arts therapies, interventions are structured around therapeutic goals determined through assessment for developing social skills, improving emotional regulation, processing trauma, or boosting self-esteem (Atkinson et al., 2021; Tortora, 2005). Arts teachers design curriculum and lesson plans based on artistic skill-building and projects (Rousseau et al., 2005).

Creative arts therapy sessions facilitate student meaning-making around psychological themes using arts modalities with the help of therapist’s guidance and processing. Arts lessons provide instruction in artistic techniques and cultural understanding within a class group context (Sajnani et al., 2017). In summary, the use of art modalities by a specialized psychotherapist-arts practitioner for intentional therapeutic processing underscores the clinical distinctions between creative arts therapies versus conventional art education within school systems.

Therefore, creative arts therapy sessions differ markedly from standard arts classes in their therapeutic orientation, structure, and practitioner expertise. Children may be referred by educators, caregivers, or by self-referral due to socioemotional, behavioural, or developmental needs. The creative arts therapist is foremost a licensed mental health professional adhering to rigorous ethical principles of confidentiality, nonmaleficence, and informed consent – distinct from an arts educator role (Brooke, 2006; McNiff, 2009). Sessions often begin by assessing the child’s affective state and personal context to guide responsive intervention planning aligned with therapeutic goals.

The therapist embodies an empathetic stance offering non-judgmental, safe, and validating space to the child secure enough to explore more deeply utilizing the appropriate artistic interventions which may obliquely touch upon a sensitive issue challenging the child. With empathic attunement, the therapist offers a judgment-free space for creative exploration and expression leveraging modalities such as art, music, drama, or dance tailored to the child’s needs. Arts-based projection enables the indirect processing of sensitive issues that direct discourse may overwhelm.

The therapist’s arts proficiency intersects with psychological training to facilitate embodied emotional integration and meaning-making within the therapeutic relationship. Due to this layered relational dynamic, progress often emerges gradually over weeks to months. Sensitivity to each child’s unique creative expression and developmental needs shapes an individual approach to nurturing well-being and growth through creative engagement.


In conclusion, the paper advocates for the transformative role of creative arts therapies in childhood development. By bridging the mind-body divide, these therapies foster self-awareness, emotional integration, and overall well-being. Childhood lays the foundation for mental health.

The author’s expertise and extensive clinical experience in this field strengthen the argument for the applicability and efficacy of creative arts therapies across diverse age groups and settings. By honouring the body’s role in mental health, these therapies allow children to process complex emotions and experiences that may otherwise become problematic in adulthood.

The integration of creative arts therapies into education can help in nurturing the innate abilities and creativity of the learners for their holistic development as well as their overall progress, whilst enriching their learning experiences and life trajectories.


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About the Author

Kritija Saxena
MA Drama and Movement Psychotherapy (Sesame), London, UK
HCPC (The Health and Care Professions Council), UK
MA Applied Psychology (Clinical specialization), Chennai, India
Queer Affirmative Counselling Practitioner
Co-founder of Project Bhava
Forensic Dramatherapist


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