Play has been the new buzzword making a comeback in early child development (go figure), but there are many misconceptions about what play actually is. A new series of courses from the Neufeld Institute that I have been taking shed light on world-renowned speaker, Dr. Gordon Neufeld‘s elaborate theory of child development around attachment, play, and emotional development. He has developed this model for years based not only on the literature from developmental psychology and neuroscience, but also on his 40 plus years of experience as a developmental and clinical psychologist.

Dr. Neufeld defines play as nature at work. It is not work, it is not for real, and it is expressive. It requires safety, engagement, and freedom from consequences. There is attachment play (seeking), emotion-based play (frustration and alarm), and play that serves that maturation process (creativity, discovery, and exploration). It is about being, not doing, and requires relational support which is best in the context of a safe, nurturing, warm Relationship.

Play serves emotion

We’ve discussed before the role of emotions, the importance of emotional expression, and how play is the answer. But how does play serve emotion? Play is the safety zone where we can let out our emotions in an acceptable way that won’t threaten our attachments. In play, it is OK if we yell, explode, cry, act scared, get overly excited, are worried, or even plan or pretend to kill someone because in play there are no consequences. Play has a beginning and an end and is not for real.

In this way, play allows us to show sides of ourselves we are too inhibited to show in real life. It protects our feelings from being hurt and allows for the necessary expression of our pent-up emotions. It’s how we cope. It helps us to feel calm again and can provide a safe alternative to crying when crying causes those around us to shame us. It is the way we can allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel our emotions without it being too overwhelming for us when doing so in real life might push us over the edge.

By softening our defenses, play allows our development to unfold as being moved by our feelings helps us to mature. Developmentalists know that development cannot take place in the ‘work‘ mode, which is outcome-based. Play allows for the unfolding of our human potential, Dr. Neufeld says, by providing the ideal conditions for neural programming. It is in play where we can rehearse and practice real life, and it is in play where integrative functioning happens first, and more easily.

Critical Core

Check out the new tabletop fantasy role-playing game, Critical Core, where play is at the heart of development! It was developed using the DIR framework and was designed specifically for youth on the autism spectrum at home or in a clinical setting. Affect Autism and The Hooded Goblin endorse Critical Core!

Play is not Outcome-Based

Dr. Neufeld talks of the transformational work of play and defines it as “where emotional conversion can take place while in a state of deep, playful rest“. It’s the ‘rest’ that is most important here because when play is outcome-based, it is not restful. When we are trying to get something right or trying to perform or please somebody, this is work, not play. Again, play is where all expression can be free without repercussion. It is not for real and therefore does not have real-life consequences.

There are many avenues through which play can find an outlet for our emotional expression whether it be humour, art, music, drama, dance, or stories. Some children are naturally drawn to music or dance, while others love to paint, for example. For our developmentally younger children, play can be fun interactive games like hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo, chase, or bubbles.

It is up to us as caregivers to provide opportunities for our children to find their favourite mode of expression. However, if we focus on outcome, the child cannot rest in the play. This means we cannot make play rewards-based or even clap and ‘approve’ of our child’s piano playing, for instance. 

Dr. Neufeld's Emotional Development Work of Play






The second their play becomes about pleasing you, it is no longer play; it becomes work: work for the connection. This is where a lot of us miss the true context of play. Think about a moment where you lost yourself in play by dancing to your favourite song–until your spouse or parent caught you and you suddenly felt self-conscious. We want to provide the safety net in play that allows your child to feel completely free of evaluation or scrutiny.

In Floortime, we must be careful not to turn play into work by turning our child’s interests into achievements, sports into accomplishment, music and theatre into performance, art into evaluation, or recreation into fitness, etc. We want our children to be free in play and not be worried about the outcome of their play. Think about a sport you may have loved and felt free doing until a coach or a parent made it clear that they really wanted you to win. That removes the definition of play from the sport.

Problem solving through play

Our primal emotions are often uncivilized, irrational, and hard to control but play helps us release them. In play it doesn’t matter what the outcome is, so it allows us to practice problem solving. In Floortime, we want our kids to be able to think and problem solve creatively and that is why play is so essential. Dr. Neufeld says that the problem solving we require to do academics must first be developed in play. This is why the early social-emotional capacities, which are developed in play, are essential before focusing on academic skills.

Dr. Neufeld says that it is play that programs our problem-solving networks, not instruction nor stimulation. Our primal emotion of frustration drives us to problem solve. When things don’t work out in play, we can use trial and error to figure it out without repercussion. We are unable to be playful if we are frightened about a consequence or what might occur. And if we shut down our children’s feelings, they will be scared of the emotions that come to them when things don’t work out for them.

Tolerating frustration to develop patience

Dr. Neufeld says that mastering frustration is not about finding a way to avoid frustration, but about developing the capacity to embrace more frustration. He also points out that we are more likely to encounter frustration in the context of engagement. In Floortime, we want to keep that playful engagement with our child, and allow their emotions to be expressed while supporting their capacity to engage and interact with us through co-regulation.

Many of our children experience a lot of frustration in their daily lives. This might cause the impulse to attack and destroy and we can do this through play, Dr. Neufeld says, by kicking, screaming, throwing, hitting, destroying, demolishing, and playing attacking games. There are playful ways to do all of these things safely. This is where Individual differences come in: some children will not like to kick or scream, others will want to construct rather than destruct. We need to help our children vent their frustration through play that appeals to them, whether it be a pillow fight, working on a puzzle, or crumpling paper, to name a mere few suggestions.

Play allows our brains to form new constructive neural pathways, especially when our brains have prematurely formed neural ruts due to how we have had to deal with daily frustrations in the work or outcome-based mode. We can replay frustrating events that happened in real life and play with different ways to respond. It is in play where we get our foul emotions moving, and when we get things moving in play, we are more likely to reach the feeling of futility required for adaptation and maturation. We get those stuck emotions moving.

Dr. Neufeld’s material on play is so much more vast than I could ever cover in one blog post, but I hope you found this snippet of information helpful. If you have any examples of seeing your child’s pent-up emotion be relieved through play, please comment below and if you enjoyed this post please share on Facebook or Twitter!

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

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