Play is the cornerstone of Floortime. It is through play that parents and children can share joy. But play is also essential to healthy emotional development because it is through play that we can experiment with and work through our emotions. Play is therapeutic for children and adults alike.

Last Fall, I saw psychologist Gordon Neufeld speak in Toronto about this very topic. The title of his talk was “Handling Emotions Through Play: Nature’s Answer to a Messy Problem” which was a nice complement to his course I had previously taken entitled, “Making Sense of Play“. I’d like to share with you what I see so relevant to Floortime from his presentation.

The Theory

Dr. Neufeld’s 40+ years of clinical experience and scouring the neuroscience, psychology, and developmental science literature guided his elaborate model that is based on the premise that attachment is the preeminent need of all mammals, including human beings. This means that above all else, we seek closeness and connection with others to survive.

When this need is not met, we face separation. This propels us to frustration, alarm, or pursuit. Even the thought or threat of separation can cause these results! The frustration leads us to try to change something; the alarm to caution; the pursuit to seek closure. If we are unsuccessful, we can either feel the futility and adapt, or we end up with various maladaptive consequences such as neuroses, aggression, anxiety, etc.


Now let’s think about our kids. Our children have differences that make connection with others look different than how we connect, which makes them even more vulnerable to feeling separation. Imagine how isolating it must be for our non-verbal children who aren’t being heard. How frustrating it must be for our children with verbal challenges to be understood in order to really feel a connection with others.

This is where Floortime becomes an essential therapy for our children. Floortime is dedicated time that we spend with our child on a regular basis focused solely on connecting and having joyful moments together. We get there by attuning to our child’s emotional state and following their lead in play.

Play is the answer

Dr. Neufeld has wonderful suggestions for how to counter our separation frustration, alarm, and pursuit through play:

  • Reduce levels of raw frustration by making things and organizing, and foul frustration by playfully destructing, hitting, throwing, kicking and screaming. Think of the fun you and your child could have releasing that foul frustration in a playful manner!
  • Reduce the alarm by providing rest from it through building forts, through rhythmic play and music, or through physical exhaustion, or address avoidance by playing monsters, telling scary stories, or by putting things in order or making other such compulsive behaviours playful.
  • Reduce the desperation for pursuit by playfully playing chase, finding, collecting, or by role-playing and dress-up.

The classic children’s games of Peek-a-boo and Hide-and-seek are perfect examples of children playing with their emotions around separation. These games should be staples in every Floortime family!

Why it works

Play is emotionally safe. In play, or in Floortime which occurs in the safety of a loving, nurturing, warm relationship, our children can experiment with life, but without the consequences. They can act out their aggression by arresting you and putting you in jail for fun or they can kill the bad pirates by sinking their boat and there are no consequences because it’s not real.

If children feel they need to change to acquire a connection or please others, they can act out these fears by changing themselves in dress up games and drama. When they are so alarmed that they become avoidant, they can experiment with these fears by being chased by a scary monster because it’s just pretend.

Let’s Do It

We, as caregivers, must provide this opportunity for play without consequences to our children. We must not judge their fears, obsessions or aggressive tendencies, but instead allow them to seek the expression in the safety of play. While we might fear that this will only lead to such behaviour in the real world, the opposite is actually the case. Our children won’t need to act out on their aggression, for instance, at school if they can process these emotions they feel through play in the safety of our care.

Play is what we all require to fully feel and come to grips with our raw emotions that can get the better of us. Having the safe place to act out all of our fears, obsessions, aggression, and anxieties will allow us to overcome them–or at least figure out how to better handle them. Floortime allows us this opportunity with our children who need a little more guidance and support.

For more information about play, please see a recent post by our friends in Manitoba about Integrated Play Groups HERE and more evidence for our stance from our friends in Pennsylvania, Maude Le Roux HERE and in California, Dr. Delahooke, HERE. And if you appreciate this post, please share on Facebook or Twitter, or comment below with any questions or experiences.

Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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