Assigning “Home Play” in Family Therapy

RfG Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 2, Winter/Spring 1996

While RfG techniques were developed as in-session therapeutic interventions presided over by a therapist/director, there are significant advantages to encouraging, preparing, and assigning couples and families play experiences out-of-session, what I call “home-play.”

The Value of Play in the Home

Not only can the at-home practicing of improv exercises further the clinical work begun in-session, play activity can itself be therapeutic. The home-life of most American families has become more fragmented, with both parents working outside the home (often for longer hours) and children spending less and less time in unsupervised play. Moreover, children’s play has become more solitary (e.g., video games) and age-segregated. In poor urban neighborhoods the dangerousness of life on the streets has further reduced free-style play among younger children; a Drama Therapist who works in a South Bronx community told me that the neighborhood elementary school has introduced play into the curriculum there; evidently, significant numbers of these children have never learned to play!

Advantages of improv as play

While many kinds of play activity can benefit families in various of ways improv that is assigned as home-play in therapy offers a number of advantages. Improv can readily accommodate players with sizeable differences in skill and experience and thus puts children, especially younger ones, on a more equal footing with their parents and older siblings. Families who improv-play together discover other potentialities in their relationships and new qualities in themselves and in other family members. Foremost among these is the discovery that the immediacy, sense of togetherness and creative use of imagination when improvising makes family togetherness worthwhile in a way that watching TV cannot. During such play families may also experience something of the arbitrariness of family rules and their habitual patterns, as well as explore other possibilities for future interaction, since improv allows an experience of change without real consequences. The principles underlying RfG improv also further healthful family interaction; competence can be de-emphasized in favor of playfulness while competitiveness is set aside for exploring cooperation and its benefits. Family members learn to “be there” for one another and to take responsibility for the larger enterprise, not just themselves.

Moving Improv into the Home

RfG employs improv games and exercises to accomplish a variety of therapeutic purposes in-session. To be effective all home-play depends upon the prior successful experience of improv in-session, by which is meant a willingness of all participating family members to continue exploring the improv experience. I classify my intended uses of home-play as falling broadly into three groups:

  1. practice or consolidation of learning from in-session enactments;
  2. altering the quality of routine transactions; and
  3. changing problematic family interaction.

Practice or consolidation of learning from in-session enactments: Essentially, the therapist assigns the same in-session exercise in order to accomplish one or more of the following objectives: (a) derive the benefit(s) of greater familiarity or skill; (b) go deeper or further than they were able to in-session, either because of lack of in-session time or the inhibiting effect of the therapist’s presence; (c) maintain a cultivated skill; or (d) practice in order to replace bad habits of interacting with good ones.

Altering the quality of routine transactions: Since improv offers players an opportunity to venture outside of familiar interactions home-play is offered to “push the limits,” particularly around expanding emotional range and impromptu impersonations that signal playfullness in place of routine. Here the in-session instructions for home-play are non-specific, consisting of staying alert to opportunities for playfulness. To be effective, however, the family members involved need to have previously had a number of in-session enactments with improvised role-play during which they experienced the excitement of enacted fantasy.

Changing problematic family interaction: There are two variations on this objective: in one, the assigning of home-play targets some recurrent pattern that has been identified as a problem among all or some of the family members who have attended therapy sessions; in the other, the attending family members agree to stage some familiar transaction in an unfamiliar way with a non-participating family member (e.g., child, mother-in-law, ex-spouse). In both variations acting upon the agreement to cooperate playfully is of greater benefit than the success of the outcome of the enactment.