Transitional phenomena and toys

Winnicot defines transitional phenomena as “things and objects”.

Things or phenomena are the child’s first material recognition of a “not-me substance or a “not-me object”. This recognition takes place on several levels, depending on the child’s age and stage of development. The very first phenomena can be the corner of a sheet, a security blanket, a blanket fringe or a sound e.g. a familiar tune.

Here the phenomenon is a secure element which will soon after be replaced by more specific objects, such as teddy bears, dolls or larger toys. It is interesting to note that Winnicot also philosophises about the special functions and significance of the transitional phenomena for the children and their parents. He mentions three areas which can have very great general significance for development of the child’s ability to make decisions, to recognise and master things and problems:

1. Value and right of disposal

  • It is important that the child and his parents are aware of the value of the object and that the right of disposal over the object is exclusively the child’s. Thus the child learns how to tackle things and situations.

In time, the transitional phenomenon will be shaped and changed by the child himself. However, if the parents undertake to change the status and substance of the phenomenon by giving it a new scent, a new shape or status (possibly just washing it) or by changing the right of disposal over it, this can represent a painful breach of trust.

2. Representation of the transitional phenomenon

The transitional phenomenon which has its principal significance in the child’s illusion or in his fantasy world must, as far as possible represent something in relation to the reality of the world around the child, the real world. But it must neither be completely devoid of fantasy nor synonymous with reality.

3. Object permanence

  • The phenomenon must have object permanence- a characteristic of the object (later, the toy) which presents the child with some kind of guarantee that the object will remain permanently with him, permanently in his possession despite possible aggressive feelings or actions on his part against the object. The security of the phenomenon - the child’s right of disposal over the phenomenon or object and the security inherent in being certain that the object continues to exist - must not disappear even if the child exerts aggression or destructive behaviour on the object. The object must be a stable support which survives!



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