This blog post is part of a series exploring the value and benefits of spending time with horses and other animals, including within a therapeutic environment. Previous posts have introduced the series, provided a brief overview and understanding of the research, explored how the presence of animals can make it safe to seek help, what we have in common with horses  and how this creates opportunities for us to learn from animals through psychoeducation and  as relatable role models

Today’s post explores another potential benefit of the human animal bond:

Recognising and experiencing the benefits of PLAY

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.

Yet, 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!

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 is. Most of our play as adults is competitive and focuses on some outcome. 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 ‘play’ a sport, drive our kids to hockey tournaments, 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 nowadays?




Our animals do – and they can show us the way back 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 competing at a horse show or 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

Our next post in this series will play with ideas of how draw upon interactions and relationships with animals to invite more play into our lives, and into the lives of those we care for and work with. We will also discuss what play does for us in terms of our emotional health and well being.

I look forward to seeing you there!

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