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 is the second part of an exploration of another potential benefit of the human animal bond: Recognising and experiencing the benefits of PLAY
In Part one of this exploration of play we discussed the seven conditions required for play to be ‘true play’ and to serve its evolutionary purpose. We also explored how much of what we call play nowadays does not meet these conditions, including when it’s competitive, ‘educational’ or is tied to an attachment purpose or outcome. Sadly, from an emotional and developmental perspective, much of what we call play is actually work.
So why does this all matter? And how can animals help?
We will explore today what ‘true’ play can do for us in terms of our emotional health, and how animals can help us invite and experience more of this play in our lives, and in the lives of those we care for and work with.
How does play foster our emotional health, development and wellbeing?
Gordon Neufeld of the Neufeld Institute 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 disfunctionally 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 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 go run with your dog in the park, join your cat on an exploration of the garden or hang out in the pasture with your horses; you may find that you enter ‘horse time’!
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 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.
How to do this is something we explore in more depth within our professional training workshops in equine and animal assisted therapy at Healing Hooves.
We hope you have enjoyed this exploration of play through animals, and this series, ‘Why Horses’.
We welcome your feedback and questions below!