Setting the Stage for Play to Find Us

Therapeutic Play

My childhood memories revolve around playing endless games of tag, hide and seek, and running bases with my brothers. We also spent lots of time camping as a family, catching salamanders in culverts, fishing in remote rivers, and playing Marco Polo anywhere we went swimming. My father was a wonderful storyteller, teasing our imagination with made-up tales about the grizzly bears swooping massive salmon out of the rivers in a faraway land we could only dream about. He spent endless hours playing catch with us, and he and my brothers gave me 13 strikes in baseball, just to keep me in the game.

All of these seem like purposeless, frivolous activities, and yet most of us know intuitively that play is an essential part of childhood—and most adults today can recount their own exploration and exploits through play. Why, then, is play an endangered activity, and what is the cost of a childhood—or a life—without play?

Play offers a myriad of therapeutic and developmental benefits, yet because the fruit of that play is not immediately evident, and play itself can be messy and loud, we tend to dismiss it more and more in favour of work and productivity. Cleverly disguised, and very unassuming, play serves a crucial role in priming relationships and helping grow kids up. Play fosters curiosity and sparks creativity. Play can defuse resistance and opposition, creating a relationship-safe alternative for parenting and teaching, turning work into play and preserving the learning potential of our kids.

Play is also nature’s therapist, providing an outlet for troublesome emotions that could do damage in real life, but lose their toxicity in play: Think of a preschooler who loves to destroy a sandcastle or block tower, over and over again. Once stirred up, strong emotions need a place to go. Play provides a safe place for them to be expressed without repercussion. Play can help anxious children come to rest; it can discharge frustration, and develop problem-solving. Play fosters caring, and also allows a child to experience loss, rejection, and exclusion, without it being ‘for real.’.

There are many things in our modern culture we call play, but are more like a counterfeit kind of play that does not serve a developmental, relational or healing purpose. True play is characterized by 6 conditions, according to developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld:

1. Play is not work (that is, play is not outcome-based; we play for play’s sake).
2. Play is not for real (play is the world of pretend, fantasy, make-believe, and imagination).
3. Play is expressive (we are expressing something of ourselves, from the inside out, and there is room for the emotions to come out).
4. Play must be emotionally safe (free from emotional wounding, and with a caring adult nearby).
5. Play must be freely entered (no one can be forced to play).
6. Play is engaging (play is often fun, but not always, as in a child re-playing a traumatic visit to the hospital).

With the holiday season behind us, our kids are often loaded with toys but at the same time not engaged in much true play. Some children (and adults) may be playing with their new digital devices, but this is not true play. Social media is often a place of wounding and usually involves working at being liked, fitting in or being important. Screen time can momentarily relieve our relational hunger, but it does not address the underlying needs that drive it. Video games take advantage of the attachment circuitry in the brain, giving the child a ‘hit’ that feels like contact and connection, but doesn’t truly nurture. In this way video games are very engaging, but the player is usually working at getting to the next level and left wanting more and more. Research suggests that video games are as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol. True play, however, is not addictive.

This is a good way to test whether something is true play—is your child obsessed with it, sneaky about it, urgent about it, or unable to control their use of it? True play satisfies and satiates, and provides a deep form of psychological rest—one of the primary conditions needed for development to unfold.

Playing the piano to achieve a certain grade level is not play, and playing soccer to win is also not true play. In true play, it is the activity that engages us, not the outcome. Teasing and tickling can be play, if it is safe, freely entered and fun; of course, both teasing and tickling can also not be play, if it does not feel safe and is not invited or freely entered.

Fortunately, children do not need any toys to play; some toys even interfere with playfulness! Thankfully it’s not about getting the right toy, or more toys. “Go play!” we holler in their direction, hoping for some self-directed activity. Unfortunately, we can’t command play in our children—play has to find them. We do have a role, however, in preparing the ground for this to happen. Sometimes it is as simple as a wink of the eye, putting on a play face, engaging with silliness or laughter, donning a cape or a mask, singing, dancing or pretending.

Our preeminent human need is relationship; children must be released from their relationship hunger to venture forth and become mermaids, pirates and dragons. We must trump their needs for contact and closeness so that the brain’s gears can shift from working at keeping us close, to resting in play. We also need to create sufficient space for play to emerge, free of entertainment and distractions. It is also our job to provide the relational support that creates a bubble of safety in play.

Play is not just for little kids. One of the most frequent questions I get asked is what teenagers can do for play. Adolescence is a time when we must safeguard some blank spaces in their lives for them to fill up with themselves—their ideas, their music, their own poetry and artistic creations, rather than to fill up with entertainment and activities that come from the outside in. Childhood is meant to develop the emotional playgrounds that teens and adults can enjoy and benefit from for the rest of their lives.

If you have the skills of playing piano, then certainly you can play piano, and express emotion and the heart’s longing through that. The art of the teenager, the music and writing, can sometimes take on a dark or violent or melancholy nature; this discharges the intensity of the associated feelings and gives room for otherwise challenging emotions to move and be transformed. We should not put the same constraints on play as we do in real life—whether it’s rough and tumble play, competitive pickup games of hockey or basketball, or Nerf gun play and chase games like Manhunt— it is play that civilizes us.

As adults, one of the things that can dramatically renew our spirit, as well as our primary relationships, and bring back some joie de vivre, is playfulness. We usually find those who are playful more attractive, and according to play researcher Stuart Brown, partners who play together are more likely to stay together. Once romance turns to marriage, and marriage turns to parenting, there is so much work and problem-solving to be done that it can squeeze out the play in the best of relationships. Infusing a relationship with play is an important investment that is often overlooked once the vows are spoken. Not unlike teenagers, however, one of the biggest challenges we face is carving out the time and space to play, pushing aside our work, our adult responsibilities, and, even for us, the myriad temptations of entertainment, counterfeit play, and our need to perform and be productive.

It used to be that culture preserved some of this sacred play time for us—in the form of family dinners, the Sabbath, Sunday family walks, or community dances, but in our modern world, many of us have lost the traditions that ensured the space for play to find us. It would foster the well-being of our families if we would create daily play rituals that provide an outlet for troublesome emotions, weekly play rituals that foster family connection (games night, family hikes or adventures, a dance night, puzzle time, craft time, music night) and monthly or seasonal play traditions we can count on to renew our spirit and foster togetherness. We need to set the stage, so that play has an opportunity to find us.


Gordon Neufeld, Play 101, Neufeld Institute Vancouver BC, Canada.

Stuart Brown, MD, with Christopher Vaughan (2010). Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.

Heather Ferguson is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and a Clinical Counsellor at the Matraea Centre in Duncan, BC.

About Heather Ferguson

I am a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Parent Consultant with a private practice in Duncan, B.C. I am also on Faculty with the Neufeld Institute. I am inspired by the relationship-based developmental approach that has so deeply enriched my life as a mother to 2 children, ages 14 and 20.