I’ve been sharing lots of information on my Facebook page recently about play – and how play can be a significant factor in helping all of us get through the additional stress we are all facing right now, with our relationships and families not just intact, but thriving.

We’ve always talked about play at Healing Hooves, and turn to our horses and other animals as role models in this area. Now, more than ever, we need to make time for play, and let our animals help us out.

Awareness has increased significantly over recent years regarding the importance of play in our children’s lives: Both that they need it, and that they don’t get enough unstructured times to participate in it. Countless studies have linked play to children’s long term cognitive, physical, emotional and developmental health and well being. Our kids may have more unstructured time right now, but are they able to use it for play? Are we?

Play is also a huge pressure release valve when we are experiencing heightened stress – as most of us are right now.

It is my experience that most of us are still sadly falling short in both truly understanding what play is, and in making enough space for it – both in our kids’ lives and in our own. Because adults need to play too.  Yes, including – especially – right now.

The truth of it is that all mammals play, except for human adults and children who’s play instincts have been thwarted by those non playing adults.

So, how can we learn from our animals to reclaim some play?

Our first problem is that we have lost sight of what play truly actually is. Most of our play as adults is competitive and focuses on some. We live in a results and work oriented world which values busyness and has no time for anything which does not have a defined purpose. We tend to favour play that educates, helps us get ahead, or gains some sort of advantage or benefit.  We may be used to  ‘playing’ a sport, or driving our kids to hockey tournaments, initiatives which are thwarted right now. We may distract ourselves from our own restlessness or pain with a video game, or allow our children to learn some of their lessons through games.

But play for the sake of play?  Who has time for that?




Our animals do – and they can show us how if we let them

Some of my most playful moments have been with my animals. Not the times when I’ve gone out with an agenda to get things done. But the times when I’ve – often by accident – ended up in a magical world where I lose all track of time. Sitting on a rock in the pasture watching the herd eat while the barn cat chases a butterfly; grooming fuzzy ponies in spring time and ending up helping the cat build a bed in all the resulting horse hair; or riding my horse across a hay field for nothing other than the sheer joy of the the feel of the wind in our hair. These are the times when I have truly found the essence of play.

What is it about these times with my animals that makes them true play, that playing on my phone will never get close to replicating?

Our animals ‘get’ this instinctively, which is why it is so easy and natural for them to play. But many of us, especially in the western world, have lost sight of our instincts and intuitions in this area so need to take a few steps back to understand what true play actually is, and is not, before we are likely to start making more space for it in our lives.



What is True Play?

Dr. Gordon Neufeld of the Neufeld Institute describes seven conditions necessary for true play to arise:

  1. True Play is not work. As soon as you reinforce play or create a consequence (especially an attachment consequence) it becomes work, not play. The focus must be on the process, not the outcome.
  2. True play is expressive. It invites and expresses what comes from inside the person rather than being stimulated by things from the outside or pressured by another’s agenda.
  3. True Play has a beginning and an end, like a dream. If play or dreams become your reality, this becomes a disturbance.
  4. True Play involves choice and freedom. You can’t be forced to play, even by yourself.
  5. True play is not for real. It is a safe bubble where we can express and explore emotions without anything being ‘for real’.
  6. True Play is emotionally safe. If play is not mutual (one person is playing and the other is for real), is used to wound (“I was just kidding”), or is used as a defensive escape from reality – then it is not true play.
  7. True Play is engaging. One person’s play may be another person’s work; therefore emotional playgrounds need to be discovered, not prescribed

True play is that place where you lose track of time while finding yourself.  As preschoolers, my kids’ true play was not found with the educational games I came up with as an overeager Mom; it was in the time they built castles for their dolls in an old blanket, discarded the new toy and played peek a boo in the box, or followed the cat around the garden and discovered a secret world. These were the times their special ‘sing song’ voices came out; they were entering the world of play.  As teenagers they play with music, with movement, with words.  It’s not play when my oldest daughter practices a new Sonatina assigned by her teacher or prepares for a music exam; the play starts when she just sits at the piano and plays whatever she feels like, just because she loves it.  My youngest daughter used to love to draw, but when I signed her up for art at school that part of her play became work, and she no longer wanted to draw. Luckily she found another playground!

None of us can play when we are tired, hungry, or worried about a relationship, and I can’t tell someone, even myself, to ‘go play’.  All I can do is provide the playgrounds and invite them – and myself – to explore.




Some of our best ’emotional playgrounds’ can be discovered with our animals

How does play foster our emotional health, development and wellbeing? 

Dr. Neufeld describes two key ways in which play benefits us:

Play is a Greenhouse

My greenhouse, sheltered on the south side of our barn, provides a protective space for my plants to start their development, safe from the harsh realities and unpredictability of our Alberta environment. Starting my plants in this greenhouse greatly increases the likelihood that they will mature into healthy plants which can then survive and produce fruit out in the ‘real’ garden. Similarly, our children need a protective bubble within which to grow emotionally; a place to practice feeling and expressing the wide range of emotions they will need throughout their ‘for real’ lives in order to mature into emotionally healthy individuals.

Play provides that safe place to practice emotion, safe from repercussions, consequences and emotional hurt.  For example, when a child plays peek a boo or hide and seek, they are actually playing with their attachment needs, with the emotion of alarm, and with facing separation.  They are facing some deep fears, but it is safe – because you always come back and you always find them.

Other examples could be drama providing a place for a shy person to express different parts of themselves.  Or playing marbles, provided you are playing for ‘funsies’, and not for ‘keepsies’. We must experience loss and losing in play to prepare us for it in real life, and we need lots of practice, with a wide range of experiences and emotions, when it doesn’t count. Play is the practice ground.

Play is also an Outhouse

Play can also provide a place to activate and discharge emotion without attachment consequences.  In fact, if emotions can’t be first explored and expressed in play, they are more likely to be expressed in real life in potentially less functional ways.  Examples could include the child who plays at being the king or queen (playing at being important), being the boss or the parent (playing with their alpha instincts) or teddy bears expressing frustration for a child.  In adolescence it will likely take a different form, for example a teenager may express their overwhelming, sometimes dark, and often confusing emotions in their writing, art or music.

For adults our ‘play’ can take many forms including expressive arts, non competitive sports, gardening or whatever it is that engages you and invites you back to that place of freedom, expression and invitation.

And again, regardless of our age, the more space that is made for our emotions to be felt and expressed through some form of play, the less they are likely to be expressed dysfunctionally in real-life relationships and interactions, and the healthier we – and our relationships – are likely to be.

How Can Animals Help?

While we humans may have gone off course in this area, squeezing out play with our focus on work and outcomes, animals have not. We we can look to our animals for both lessons and opportunities, in three significant ways:

We can watch our animals play

Observing someone else at play can be a great start to igniting that same spark within ourselves. It can remind us of the things that matter in life, it can help us to slow down and make space, and it can bring us joy.

So next time your cat starts chasing shadows on the wall or pouncing on the cushions, allow yourself to sit back and enjoy the moment!


We can accept our animals’ invitations for a play date
Some of my greatest play times are with my animals. Animals naturally fall into the true play conditions; their play is spontaneous, usually not competitive, and focuses on the process and the moment rather than on any outcome. They invite us into a world of play for the sake of play, provided we don’t sabotage things by turning it into a lesson!

So, if you can, go run with your dog, join your cat on an exploration of the back yard (or the laundry room) or hang out in the pasture with your horses. You may need to be creative in finding these opportunities while practicing social distancing, but you don’t have to practice social distancing with your animals!

We can draw on our relationships with animals to create the seven conditions of play
both within a therapy context and in other environments including school and home.

While I believe that play is usually the best answer, there are times when play alone may not be enough: when there has been trauma, when there is no safety to play, when all the play instincts have been lost. At these times a therapeutic approach may be advisable and yet still, play and our animals can provide the way through. Recalling and then ensuring we provide the seven conditions for true play is a great model for counselling, educating, and parenting; and animals can be a great support and guide in providing this model.

So, my hope is that we can all let our animals show us the way here, and reclaim some more play – for our children and for ourselves, both during the current times of additional stress and well into the future. And remember:

True play is that place where you lose track of time while finding yourself.

For more resources on play I highly recommend Dr. Deborah MacNamara’s website and blog: http://macnamara.ca/kids-best-bet-blog/

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