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:
- 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.
- 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.
- True Play has a beginning and an end, like a dream. If play or dreams become your reality, this becomes a disturbance.
- True Play involves choice and freedom. You can’t be forced to play, even by yourself.
- True play is not for real. It is a safe bubble where we can express and explore emotions without anything being ‘for real’.
- 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.
- 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!
Very well written (as always), Sue 🙂 This post will be helpful to pass on to some of the parents with whom I work (re: their kids/themselves, and play).
Yes. Well written. As adults we dont play. We are just so caught up in our lives. I will work on changing that starting today. Thankyou
Incredibly useful information Sue!
So many of us in helping professions need to be reminded of the positive aspects of play, not only for clients but for ourselves.
I love playing pretend with my 4 year old, I often wonder where he comes up with such creative and elaborate ideas!
A good reminder, too, how easily learning (like your daughters’ piano and art) can shift away from play. Lightness is the beauty…
I have such great childhood memories of playing at the local ranch where I was part-boarding a retired barrel racer. My friend and I would play tag on horseback, lounge with the horses as they grazed outside, lay on their backs, and trail ride over to my house into the backyard just for fun – much to the chagrin of my dad who prized his manicured lawn (the horses left holes in the septic field)!
sounds like fun! I remember riding my horse over the graves at Culloden Battlefield and pretending I was a Jacobite. I think we got chased out of there a few times!
I don’t make enough time in my life for play. There is some but I want more of it! I really liked the definitions and examples. I look forward to hearing more about this in Focus Training.
As a parent, we would head out on our bikes with no real destination in mind. Stop at an ice cream store, a park or even a pile of dirt and just play. I find that now my kids are grown and out of the house, I certainly don’t have that raw play I used to. I take time to do the things I love but it isn’t as innocent and unrestricted.
I had honestly not given much though about the importance of play for adults. Good food for thought!
I felt like play was something that I did not like but I love your description of it being something that you lose yourself in!
yes – true play can be so many different things, and may not be what we traditional see as ‘play’!
Play is such a contentious topic in Education. You would be hard pressed to find educators that don’t know the value of true play, and yet there is such priority in structuring time spent in school to ensure that students are not experiencing unstructured time. Even our transition time (walking from the class to the gym for example) is counted to ensure that there is a minimal amount of time lost. Regardless, I’m actually quite inspired by this post to think about how play might be accessed in the middle school ages. Something to think about.
I hear you Chloe! I home schooled my girls and early days I was all about making everything, including their play,’educational’. I’m quite sure I sucked a lot of the fun out of many things! But as I started to understand this piece a bit better I created more space, less structure and more freedom for them, and that is when they were creative and often when they ended up moving into doing their best work. I think there is sometimes then a fear that kids won’t learn a good work ethic or get things done, but they are now both honours students and self motivated so that was certainly not the case! It’s going to be different in a school environment due to the peer relationships but I do hope that some of this can influence things.
I love this article about play. We sometimes do not do enough of it! Again, reminds me of a concept of mindfulness from Marsha Lineman being participation. She talks about fully participating in life like ‘the kid in a mud puddle’!
I love that image!
I am still getting my head around the true concept of play, well enough that I could explain it to others. I have bits and pieces and they are slowly coming together. I have also started playing with my own alarm system. I have not decided if this is true play yet, since I am not sure the way I am doing it is expressive but the journey continues!
A wonderful resource on play is Deborah MacNamara – she has a great blog called Kid’s best bet which has lots of articles on play
Play for adults, need to work on that!
I think most of us do Melanie! Sometimes its simply making space for it when it turns up. We have a section in the training which explores this and invites you to make some more space for play, and also to recognise and value it when it presents itself!
We had a hill of dirt behind the house and that served as a mountain, a slide and a house. I remember digging some chairs and steps into the side of the hill. We made forts in the trees with sticks and old wood, we sailed ships (an old bathtub) down the little irrigation ditch that also served as a moat around the fort/castle(it was knee deep). The play went on as far as our imaginations would take us! I have such fond memories of growing up on the farm. Looking back know I realize how rich our childhood was! Thank you for helping to bring up these memories Sue!
sounds wonderful Kim – and hopefully by revisiting the memories of play you are able to recapture some of the feeling and joy within those memories too!
Being a mother of two small children, this has definitely reminded me of the importance of play. I agree as adults we start to forget this. Animals do get this instinctively and we do have so much to learn from this. I think it is so exciting that work with clients and animals can create an environment for this!
I agree with everything Gordon says but I need to know more about “When you reinforce play…. it becomes work not play.” That does not sit with my experience of attachment, or possibly I am not understanding that statement. I find when I see a child truly playing, especially one who has struggled to allow themselves to play, all I need to do is gain quick eye contact, smile and nod. I have reinforced the play, but more importantly, my nod has just granted the child permission to be themselves and play as they need to. That in turn, has just reinforced the attachment relationship between us.
Great questions and clarification here Patty which shows the limitations of language sometimes!
I agree that your description sound like inviting play, which is great! The potential concern is when reinforcement leads to a situation where the child starts (or continues) to ‘play’ in order to gain the reward and/or the pleasure/ approval of the person reinforcing it, then the nature of the play has changed to work as they are now doing it for an outcome rather than simply for the process of play. So, in your example – if the eye contact, smile and nod simply indicates to the child that they are free to play – that is wonderful. But, if you had an attachment hungry child who desperately needed that eye contact, smile and nod – who then started to play not for the sake of play but in order to try to secure another smile and nod – then it’s no longer true play. It’s become attachment work. This is where overall context becomes so important.
Does this make sense?
“……play focused on an outcome” High Five to this! This just seems to be to be the polar opposite of what Play should be, yet the comment couldn’t be, for the most part, closer to the current truth.
It saddens me to see how children embrace the living in the moment play, purposeless and with the only expectation being to feel joy, only to journey down a long path over time, towards constructed, dictatorship, result focused play. How they lose the magic. How we have lost the magic as adults, because we were once those children too.
My most cherished memories are of my children as toddlers, running through puddles or eating snow, not attending a soccer game.
My most cherished memories for myself are those long summer evenings, low setting light, grass tickling barefeet and birdsong or cattle lowing sounds, tangled hair and filthy hands, the smell of horse, the connection felt from play with siblings and animals.
Now, to endeavor to re-create this. To Play. To hold space for children to play. To do everything in our power to help them play as long as they can. To play with them. This is where the power of play shines.
well said Sara!
“true play is not for real”, for a child in therapy this can be a hard place to reach. I facilitate filial therapy and often (as adults have) the parents have forgotten how to play, or never had the opportunity to play as children.
yes – there usually needs to be safety in place first before play can arise, so we need to find ways to create that safety. Fortunately I find the animals really help in this process – for children and adults alike
Playful post Sue 🙂 My most joy-filled memories of the days when my girls were quite young are the ones where they were playing together in the most creative and imaginative ways and I got to hear and see little snippets of it all from the kitchen while I did my ‘work’. I can still feel my heart singing along with them and I can see the sparkle in their eyes as they passed by me carrying any number of things that they were using in their ‘set up’.. costumes, props, building materials… I look forward to my grandchildren! In the meantime, I invite more play in my life… the horse remind me when we are at liberty…
That status of being ‘busy’. Something that I am realizing is so ingrained in me and just the world in general. If we aren’t we think we aren’t doing good work.
yes – this can be a tough one to overcome – but awareness is the first step!
I like that adults need to play too it is an important reminder to not be too busy to have fun and play. I also liked the definitions of true play I think it is interesting to focus on progress not outcomes and that play is a choice. I want to be able to play with my horses more by focusing less on outcomes and more on the progress or journey of our relationship and lives.
Isn’t it so true that even when we think we’re playing, we’re usually choosing activities that have a goal or a purpose? I find it difficult to play with absolutely no goal in mind, and it takes a great deal of awareness to remind myself that doing an activity simply for the joy it is reason enough! What a fantastic feeling when we do truly play!
I’d like to better understand the idea that true play is “not for real”. Will we discuss this further?
we will! We dive into this during focus training
I love this post! It is fascinating to me that to be in true play we need to hold space to do so. It is the exact opposite of what adulthood is for most people- being productive and hustling all the time. This is a great reminder I need to stop the hustle and hold space to exist mindfully and creatively in a state of play.
I like how you put this Elicia: “hold space to exist mindfully and creatively in a state of play.”
Learning to play again as an adult is such a gift. I ended up having a counselling practicum placement this past year working with children and adolescents ages 6-18. At first, I was focused on accomplishing something in the counselling sessions. I soon realized I needed to slowdown and take time to embrace play. It has been an amazing experience, both counselling experience and personally.
That’s great to hear that you have been able to make this transition Tonia!
Wow! I could really benefit from more play in my life. I feel I am more driven to accomplish and be productive in my very busy day to day. I do very much love to see kids at play, and enjoy watching /observing what comes from nature in a still moment, so would love to be doing more of this!
We explore this later on in the focus training so you will hopefully get to experience some play soon!
I think I need to print this article and keep it on my fridge as a reminder of the importance of play. I am always amazed at what lies within my children when I have the privilege of watching them play and express themselves.
And what is wonderful here is that when we watch children (or animals) play I find we get to receive some of the joy inherent in this ourselves too – without it taking anything away from them.
I am going to echo many of the proceeding comments here and say again how this article has brought awareness to the importance of bringing play back into my own life! But also welcoming more of the spontaneous silliness and laughter into client sessions and allowing both of us to acknowledge and enjoy them when they do!
I agree – sessions can be playful too!
I’m thankful for my Mum 🙂 for being so playful with us. I love playing with all ages! It was a good reminder for me to read about how play doesn’t include competitiveness .. so many important points are made in the story.
Really nice, Sue
I’m glad you liked it Judy – much more to come in the training! And it’s so lovely to see someone else using the UK spelling for Mum!
I remember playing for hours and hours in my sandpit as a child, creating endless world with my tiny animals (which obviously included horses!). This was sometimes on my own and sometimes with my brothers (who had their own sandpits either side) so we could all join up and play together.
The opportunity to escape to another place, and experience such fun and creativity was such a blessing. And I now enjoy watching my own children enjoying similar play, whether that’s rolling on the floor with our dog or creating Lego battles – the opportunities for play and the joy it brings are endless.
yes – sand can be such a wonderful medium to play in/ with. I’ve started adding sand tray options (forkids and adults) in my sessions and this can be very powerful.
I am currently in an EMDR training and have noticed that from being the “practice client”, I am naturally engaging in playfulness. True play, as outlined in this post, is such an important piece in healing. I can see how playfulness could support the EFW process.
We see the lacking of social skills more and more in society and the school playgrounds. Kids/students are not able to make connections with others because they cannot unlock their imaginations and just be. We not only see in this in younger kids but also older (grade 5, 6, and on) as well. We are needing to teach and explore with them.