February 1, 2021

Ep. 32 – Dr. Gordon Neufeld – The Essential Nature Of Play

  • The first indicator of a loss of health and well-being is the loss of playfulness.
  • What kind of play takes care of our emotions and of us?
  • The importance of boredom.

In this episode, author and developmental theorist, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, describes the 7 properties of true play. He identifies play as a basic human drive that starts at birth and remains essential throughout all of life. Globally, psychologists pinpoint loss of play as central to the rise in anxiety, depression and mental suffering in children and adults.

“True play,” says Dr Neufeld, “takes care of our emotions, opens the door to our potential, and is nature’s way of taking care of us.”

Episode Guest

Dr. Gordon Neufeld - The Essential Nature Of Play Ep. 32

Dr. Gordon Neufeld

Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a world leader in child developmental theory. “We liberate children,” he says, “not by making them work for our love, but by letting them rest in it.” Dr. Neufeld’s best selling book, Hold Onto Your Kids, his International Course work and the Neufeld Training Institute lay the foundation for much of what we are now discovering about the essential nature of play, in both children and adults.

Additional Resources:
Website: Dr. Gordon Neufeld
Facebook: Dr. Gordon Neufeld
Twitter: Dr. Gordon Neufeld


Transcript: Dr. Gordon Neufeld – The Essential Nature of Play  

Rachel Cram – Dr. Neufeld thank you so much for this second interview. The first time we interviewed you we were in your home, which was so lovely and this time because of COVID 19, we’re needing to be in a more socially distanced environment but it’s so great to be back.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – My pleasure to be so.  

Rachel Cram – Thank you. Now you’ve been very active online during these last months. You put out a number of videos and webinars on parenting in a pandemic. How are you doing through all of this? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – I’m doing just fine. It’s rather natural for me actually to retreat. Personally I don’t mind it at all. I’m busier than ever but it’s a bit of a shock. I had to cancel two years worth of trips. In fact right now I’m supposed to be on a six week tour in Europe and in Russia. And so, it’s a bit of a retreat. But personally I don’t mind it. 

Rachel Cram – Well, I’m sorry you’ve missed those opportunities but I’m delighted you’re here for this interview so thank you so much for that.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Glad to be here. 

Rachel Cram – Over a year ago when we interviewed you we had the topic of the hierarchy of caring how children develop a capacity for relationship and at the beginning of that interview, just as we were starting to talk. I asked you what you were hungering to know more about right now and you gave this amazing reply about your ongoing research into play, that has me and many of our listeners eager to know more. So that’s where we want to go today. Dr. Neufeld you talk about there being seven properties of true play. And the emphasis on ‘true’ implies to me that play is qualitative so maybe that’s a place to start. What drives you and researchers around the world to qualify play now? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well to do research on anything, you’ve got to be able to define it. So that drives it from the science end of it. What are we really talking about?  

From a word meanings point, it’s trying to bring to the essence, the construct of play in every single culture and every single language. And so you try to figure out, OK what does it mean here? The word has got abused, misused. It has got stretched. So when we talk about true play we’re talking about the kind of play that takes care of our emotions, the kind of play that opens doors to our potential, the kind of play that  takes care of us.  

So scholars of play are busy trying to figure out, ‘what are these properties,’ and these are the seven properties that make sense to me. 

Rachel Cram – Okay. So this kind of play is so important. Before we jump into hearing about those 7 properties of True Play, I’m just wondering, if an adult, can an adult introduce true play to a child or does a child have to find it themselves?  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Children will engage in play as long as the conditions are conducive. It comes from the inside out. It’s an absolute need for the child to play. So if the child feels secure enough, if home base is secure enough.  Just think of other mammals for instance. If you saw a picture frame and you saw it in that frame, let’s say some wolf cubs playing with each other, wonderfully playing with each other. You intuitively know that the mother wolf is nearby and they can smell the mother wolf and that they are secure in this. Even though the frame doesn’t include this. You know intuitively that no wolf cub could be free to play unless their survival needs were taken care of.  

And so that’s exactly what it is for us too. A child must have a sense that there’s a certain security in the contact and closeness, the love and attention and so on. When that’s there, the child will spontaneously go into play. We’re wired to do so. You can’t teach play,  You can’t command play. You can’t say, even to yourself, “I’m going to be playful today,” and that be true.  You can’t do that. Play isn’t like that. You can’t shape it, you can’t reinforce it. If you reinforce play it makes it go away. You can’t reward for it.  

Rachel Cram – You can’t fake it.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – You can’t fake it. Well if you fake it it doesn’t count for real. Play is nature’s instrument, is nature incognito. You don’t have any control over it. What you have to do is find the playfulness inside of you.  Now, the  playfulness inside of you may help prime the playfulness inside of another but it’s really the magic of the universe. 

Rachel Cram – We’re going to take a long time to get to these seven properties because there’s so much to ask you about. Like, say you have a family and the parents are attached with their kids like the example with the wolvesSo, they’ve set up an environment that’s very conducive to play. Is it fair to say that you might have one child that plays with a high level of imagination, engagement and another one that is less so just because of their character, of their personality?  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Oh absolutely, absolutely. 

Rachel Cram – And that doesn’t necessarily mean one child is suffering more than the other, it’s just more affected by their personality? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Absolutely. If we’re physical we tend to use physical means. If we’re very verbal, words will be important to us. Play with words will be very important to us. It’s what engages us.   

But in all of this, what takes care of us primarily, is that our emotions have to come out to play for us to feel them. And so key to everything is emotions. Emotions have been dismissed for such a long time.  

We used to think of rest as when you sleep. But emotions don’t rest while you’re asleep. Emotions are in charge of your dreams. Emotions are also in charge of your memory. And so where do emotions rest? Well it turns out that emotions seek rest in play. They have to come out to play where it doesn’t count for real. 

We’re getting ahead to some of our properties here, so you’ll have to go back.  

But for one child it may be in their imagination and another child it may be on the swing when their emotions come and they can feel what they’re experiencing and so children vary tremendously. And we will vary developmentally as we get older. The kind of play that can serve where we are emotionally.  

Rachel Cram – Ok. We’ll get to those things. And these are the reasons why we need to play. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Oh yes we absolutely need to play. When you put the pieces together you find that the very first indicator of a loss of emotional health and well-being is a loss of playfulness. You can feel it in yourself. Playfulness we find is the key indicator we know for a child when they’re in trouble, for a baby when they’re in trouble, Playfulness is the number one indicator of emotional health and well-being. And ironically it’s the number one avenue to emotional health and well-being. And so this is, this is so important. 

Rachel Cram – Thanks for answering those questions. So, knowing that play is so important, can you now walk us through the seven properties of true play?    

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes we’ll take them one by one and I’ll try to describe them. First of all play is engaging. You’re not thinking of outcome.  You’re not conscious of outcome. Now, some people think of play as fun, you need to be happy. That’s not necessarily true.  

Play engages. For instance, sadness usually is an aversive experience to most of us. Most of us would rather not feel sad.  But oh my goodness in play, does sadness feel sweet.  

Rachel Cram – Can you give an example of that? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – When you have a melancholy song, a poetry that goes to the quick. When you hear a lullaby, that slow lulling heart beat kind of thing. The first music ever that we have history of was a lullaby. Even the structure of it is to access any kind of sadness in you because the sadness is required to let go. And what does a child need to let go of when they go to sleep?  They need to let go of holding on, they need to let go of the day, all the activities. 

In one of the East Indian languages, in Hindi I believe, sleep is called the little death. And of course that’s exactly what it is, you go into the separation. The Lullaby, it engages. So you’re not thinking of holding onto Mommy, you’re not thinking of the contact. You’re not thinking of all of this. The word lullaby and lament come from exactly the same root word. And so you can see that that’s the way we deal with mortality. We have to find that song, that poetry, so we touch it just one step removed in play. 

Well Plato actually described it. Plato was the first play theorist in ancient Greece. I love it that it was Plato. 

Rachel Cram – That’s just purely coincidental. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Exactly. But he said it very succinctly. Music can make sadness feel so sweet. And it does. 

It just engages you and without this music, without this melancholy, without this poetry, we’re left with elevated frustration, with aggression, with polarization. Sadness is required to adapt to anything that we’re facing that we cannot control. So it’s an emotional process and play is the medium. It takes care of that emotion in us and it prepares us and refreshes us for the next day for being able to again adapt and adjust to those things that we wish we didn’t have to adapt to but that is play. 

Rachel Cram – So, you’re saying, it’s not that play needs to be fun or happy to serve us, but that play engages. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It is absolutely self engaging and that is important. That’s why we can use it. For instance, how do you deal with a child who’s skittish or when they’ve had bad  experiences?  When they may qualify for a diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder? How you deal with all of those things for a child who’s very hard to collect. Or how do you deal with it when you know when is just not engaging for a child to be in relationship with you?   

Well, you add playfulness to yourself, and we do this naturally for any infant, if we’re trying to collect the infant if we’re trying to engage the infant, we play. 

Our voice goes into play, our eyes twinkle, we play. There’s smiles on our faces and we act the most playful. You don’t act serious to a baby. You play and play is the secret to the engagement.  Except that we forget this.  

The research shows that we actually became attracted, most of us to our partners, because we were playing together. It was the playfulness that engaged us. It’s like the ultimate primer. And so this is what I mean is it that play, because it’s engaging, it makes everything it touches engaging.  And that’s important because chores aren’t engaging. So, you know, what’s the key? Well, you add an element of play to it. All the ‘have tos’ and the ‘must’ aren’t engaging, so you say, “Oh, who can be the first to put their seatbelt on?”  

And you provide an element of play to it. And oh my goodness, the pre-schooler, he’ll just turn on a dime. Now it’s all about play. It’s really the key to behavior management for a young child. You can get any food into them, can get them to do anything that they’re possible of doing, by simply using play. And it should be our first go-to instrument because it’s like magic. It’s absolutely powerful. 

Music interlude #1  

Rachel Cram – OK. The second distinctive of true play. The second property. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well the second distinctive is next in importance. So first of all we have it’s engaging. That is what gives it its power. Second thing is that it’s not outcome based. So what engages us is not where it leads to. What engages us is the activity itself. 

So, as a family for instance, you may play a board game. And let’s say you have three children.  Two children are playing that game to win and they wouldn’t play unless they had a big chance of winning. But the third child is just playing for play sake because it’s an opportunity to be with the family and you know an opportunity to play and so it’s the activity that engages them whether they win or lose. And so one person’s play may not be the other person’s play.  You don’t really know. 

Rachel Cram – So for those two kids that are determined to win, that board game is not a true play situation for them? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It’s not serving the kind of play that is necessary for their development and emotional health.  

Rachel Cram – But the child who is not concerned about the winning, just enjoying, that is true play for them? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – That is true play. That is to play.  So true play, even though there are outcomes to play and there’s phenomenal outcomes to play, you’re not conscious of those outcomes.  

Rachel Cram – You’re not there for that.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – No. And the self-consciousness generally comes because you’re afraid of failure or not performing. Playfulness takes away all self-consciousness that is involved. So a playoff game would not be play for most people.  

Rachel Cram – Yeah, because they would really care about the outcome. They want to win. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – They care about the outcome. I played piano as a kid and I had classical training and for the most part when I so-called played piano I was playing towards an outcome right? For a recital or for my teacher to not disappoint them. It was work.  

But I discovered that I could play around on the piano and play for effect and chord changes and all of the effects emotionally that a chord changes and surprises and suddenly it went into landscape you know, like emotional scape kind of playing and could play for hours. But it was not about outcome at all. Now did it in effect increase my ability to play at the piano? Yes it did but I wasn’t conscious of that. There was no consciousness of outcome at all. And this is the key in school because if you bring play into the curriculum and make it outcome based and you let your purpose be known, it ruins it. 

Rachel Cram – So what would be an example of that? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well as an educator, like in Finland one third of their curriculum, all the way through to high school is play and that’s why the Finnish school system has the highest ratings of all school systems around the world. 

Rachel Cram – So the teacher knows that during this lesson there are these learning outcomes that will occur but the child doesn’t know what those learning outcomes are? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – No, you incorporate through ritual, through culture, you incorporate through various places where there is no consciousness of outcome. 

Rachel Cram – Can you just describe what a lesson would look like like that?  Because I think that’s so foreign to our current educational system. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well, let’s see if I can go to an example.  

Rachel Cram – I’m just thinking, could even give an example of a math lesson or something.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Oh yes. Math. I had this wonderful math teacher in Grade 5 who would come in in the morning and play math games with us. There were no marks, we just had the greatest fun with multiplications, additions. We were all learning to do this and we never realized it was all play.  

If you can play with numbers, you will realize their conservation, you will realize all kinds of things as soon as you play. My teacher  allowed me to come to the class early because I was excited about playing with long division and that’s where I figured out the conservation of numbers. But it’s in play where you’ll make your breakthrough. 

Rachel Cram -Yeah. I know a lot of card games that you play with kids, or games like Yahtzee, you’re there for the game but you’re learning great math skills along the way. Now there is an outcome though. Well what if what if you want to win that Yahtzee game and you’re learning math at the same time? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well, we all want to win. 

Rachel Cram – That’s very complicated.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – We all want to win. That’s not the issue. Winning is a little bit more fun. It’s the fact that if you knew you couldn’t win would you still be engaged. That’s the key. That’s the key to education. There is purpose in play but you must not feel that purpose.  

For instance, you can’t reward play. As soon as you try to praise it, oh. Like let’s say somebody is playing on the piano, they’re making music. You say, “Wonderful!  That was so great. I love it when you do this.” You just destroyed the time.  You cannot,  

Rachel Cram – Because what does that do in a child’s mind when you’ve said that?   

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well play comes from inside out.  It comes from inside out. As soon as you say, “That was good,” you have revealed your will for the child. You have changed completely the parameters of this. They were playing and now you said that led to a good outcome. Me praising you. Me giving you approval.  

So this whole idea that you praise children for what you like to see. No. If it is a result of play, bite your tongue. Play is not about outcomes.  

Rachel Cram – Yeah, and that goes against a lot of what we want to actually do as parents is to encourage and praise. And that’s not the time and place for that.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – That’s right. 

Rachel Cram – You used the phrase, ‘from the inside out. Play comes from the inside out.’ 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. It is expressive. That’s one of the distinctives. It is expressive so it’s coming from inside out. It’s not about outcomes. The fourth characteristic is  

Rachel Cram – Now, the fourth, is the third one expressive?  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes  

Rachel Cram – OK. So we just whipped through expressive?   

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – We just whipped right through it. Yes but it’s important. I don’t mean by whipping through it is not important. It’s incredibly important because we think that entertainment is play and so much of this in fact interferes with true play.  When we are stimulation oriented, when things are coming in. It often interferes with us coming from the inside out. Entertainment is from outside in. Stimulation is from outside in.  

Now, when we are bored, nowadays we have so many things to fill that boredom. I mean we always had food but we have all kinds of other things to fill that boredom, entertainment, activities, reading and so on.  And so we can use those things to escape the boredom. Now play theorists believe that boredom, when we didn’t have all of these distractions around us, used to be a trigger for play. And that’s part of the problem now because the answer to boredom is not filling the hole with things that come from outside in. The answer to boredom is finding something ‘in’ to fill the hole, and filling the whole from inside out. And so the answer to boredom is in the expressive mode, not the stimulation mode, which is the opposite of what people think. 

And so it’s so important when our children are bored not to go to the idea of filling that boredom from outside in but being able to set the stage so something starts coming from inside out. And so then they will automatically move creatively, whether it is art, dance, whether it is singing, whether it is the way they are playing with their toys becomes more creative rather than prescribed. Something is being expressed from inside out. If conditions are conducive it will be spontaneous. It happens. 

The problem is that play is not demanding, it needs space, so a lot of things can interfere with it including false play.  Video games, screenplay, are all for the most part, you know, oh probably 95 percent, are outcome based and they’re not in the expressive mode. So we need to be very careful about this to make sure there is room for things to come from inside out. 

Musical interlude #2   

Rachel Cram – As a parent, words like important ocareful, attached to how my children fill their time, they give me pause. Can you Gordon, can you give an example, even from your own life, of this kind of play? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. For instance, my father wisely, well he didn’t know about this, but he built a swing for me when I was a little kid. 

Rachel Cram – He instinctively knew? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well I don’t think he knew, I think he just had lots of work to do and he just needed me to be engaged by something and so he built this wonderful apparatus and my favorite part was the swing. But when I came home from school, when my mother felt like she was too smothering, I would go outside and I would be on that swing and all my feelings would come back on that swing.  

Well, I have three swings at home. I’m 73 years of age. I have hardly ever in my life been without a swing and I only recently realized what it is that is happening. I swing and it’s like all the feelings that disappeared during the day come back. You don’t normally think of a swing as emotional playground. It is for me. It’s solitary. I often go into a humming mode which is repetitive and it is a place all of a sudden where all my feelings catch up with me. 

Rachel Cram – So you father, inadvertently it seems, created a play space for your feelings. That’s the idea here, for what we offer our children.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Exactly. So the idea here is just simply observing with your child, you know, 2 3 4 years of age it doesn’t matter how old they are, where their emotions come out and play, what kind of activity. It’s not social, not generally because the social aspects very much overwhelm the child. It usually has to do with a solitary activity but where their emotions are coming out. Where it’s expressive  

Rachel Cram – Can we rely on that actually happening because I’m going to tell you what I’m worried about. That the space for boredom doesn’t happen anymore because the second that you start to feel remotely bored, you pull out your phone, or any other screen device. Will play emerged through that? Or is that a barrier? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It tends to be a barrier and that’s where all the concern is. In recent decades the amount of even play that they can measure, like physical play, is dropping significantly in children and play theorists are very concerned about the implications developmentally. And so it really does need rituals to protect it.  

Rachel Cram – Rituals.  What do you mean by rituals?  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Rituals is, you know, a time for singing, a time for poetry, a time for reading a story. But the story is chosen not to be a stimulating story but for the story where the emotions can come out to play in that story. 

So it’s the rituals that protect play because it won’t be protected otherwise. And so it’s more like protecting the spaces in the places noticing where the child’s emotions come out to play, building rituals around this that happen daily, at least weekly, so that it’s protected from the influx, from entertainment’s ongoing stimulation. The smartphone, the iPad. From all of these things that our kids are used to now, which really take away from that place. 

Rachel Cram – Now there’s got to be pushback from that. Right. Like if you say to your child, I mean this conversation is going to go on forever. If you say to your teenager we’re going to create a ritual where you don’t have your cell phone around for the next two hours. That’s not gonna be happily received. It’s not going to feel playful to them. 

Can you.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – How do you do this?  

Rachel Cram – How do you do this? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – I don’t, I don’t think it’s easy in our world to be able to do this. It’s not easy. Zon Jacques Rousseau said in 1763 that his main concern was that parents should be a buffer to society, giving the child a chance to become their own person before they were overcome with the pressures of conformity.  But you asked me how. I don’t, I’m glad I’m not a parent today. 

I don’t know the answers to it. I only know that it is important to do. I don’t know how.  

Rachel Cram – It’s complicated.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yeah it is. It is difficult but the fact is, this is really really important. We have intuitions within ourselves. When we feel playful, where do we go to? What do we need? We all have playgrounds in our past that we needed for our emotions. Many of us have lost these. We didn’t know that they were important. 

And so it’s organic. It’s organic. It is bringing in this desire, the yearning for it, the love of it, finding out where it comes out in us, where it comes out in our children and to know that play will build the brains that school will use. But it’s at play where the answers lie. 

Rachel Cram – OK let’s keep going. So you’ve got engaging, not outcome based, not work, expressive. Yes. What’s the fourth distinctive? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Not for real.  

Rachel Cram – OK  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It doesn’t count. It’s just not for real. And so you mustn’t use that time of play to correct their behavior because if you make it work based you destroy the play. So, just to give you an example, you have two sisters who are sisters in real life but now they’re playing being sisters. Do you follow me?  

Rachel Cram – Yeah, I did that with my sisters. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – All right. So we’re playing being sisters and in playing being sisters. You’re yelling at each other right. So mom or dad hear this, “Come on girls get along. Don’t be so mean.”  

Rachel Cram – I’ve done that to my kids.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Both girls will erupt and say, “We’re only playing.” In other words it doesn’t count. It doesn’t count. See and that’s the beauty of play, is it doesn’t count. And when it doesn’t count our brain is at its best. 

That’s why a lot of the leading places like BMW and Google, they are now incorporating play in all of their problem solving because when it doesn’t count, you are at your most creative. You get new ideas. Your brain is optimized. And so it can be in your imagination, it can be hypothetical. I mean all kinds of things but it doesn’t count for real. And so it’s important for us to not ruin that by trying to do you know  

Rachel Cram – A solution or a moral lesson or something.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes exactly. In that place that doesn’t count. So let’s say if you had a child who was starting to insult you. Like,“You poopoo face, I hate you,” you know and so on. One of the ways you could give room for those emotions is bring it into play.  

“There’s a time and a place for this. Think of all your best words you can call me.” And then you give the signal. “OK. OK.” 

And then you go and so then it comes in play but it doesn’t count. The child gets his emotions out, there is a purpose, they’re free of it, but it doesn’t count for real. And of course this is where we create poetry which is way too dramatic. We create music, we do all of these things in play. We overstate our emotions. It doesn’t count. It gives us our chance to get it out.  

When I was working with kids in prison I would introduce them to these different emotional playgrounds, you know rap, poetry, all of these kinds of things that they could do to get it out because it didn’t count. And it’s what is necessary in that place that the emotions that are difficult for us, that are too much for us, that would hurt our loved ones, they all need to get out and play is the answer.  

Rachel Cram – Can I just ask you a question on that? I’m going back to teach kids because this is reality in my life right now. So what about listening to music that’s got harsh words in it?  Is that because they’re needing an opportunity to have that kind of expression?  Because a lot of rap music has got a lot of harshness in it. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well it does. The problem with a lot of music is if you’ve got a bit of frustration in you and you listen to the way somebody else has formed it, with attitudes and words that are misogynistic, that are violent and so on, it shapes the person’s own way of thinking. So there’s a downside to this, is that it can also shape a way of expression that is not in their best interests. It is always better for it to go to the inside out.  

Does it serve some function. Undoubtedly it does but it also has this downside in that it spreads ways for kids who are peer oriented and not adult oriented, who aren’t taking their cues from how they talk and they are taking their cues from others, it leads to a violence that really was unnecessary. There’s all kinds of ways of expressing frustration without using that kind of language, without those kinds of attitudes and that kind of attack. 

Rachel Cram – So perhaps for the artists when they created it as therapy for themselves… 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes, it would have been nice if they would have kept it to themselves really.  

Rachel Cram – Gotcha.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – And not visited that on all the people who worship them you know and then use it for themselves. But it probably served a function for themselves.  

Rachel Cram – Well, I think that often when you look back at the artist lives it has. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes, absolutely it has a place but it can also give ideas to the listeners that they never had. 

Musical interlude #3   

Rachel Cram – Ok. We’ve got three more to go. So, we have number one, it has to be engaging. Number two, not outcome based, not work. Number three, it needs to be expressive. Number four, not for real.   

And so now here we go into number five, safe. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes yes, you feel safe when you’re in play.  And feeling safe is really important for the brain to function properly, for all kinds of things to function properly. Now, if somebody hurts their feelings, that is the end of play. That’s the end of play. For instance, take the exchange of wit, reparteeMy wife is incredible at repartee. She was the youngest child and she got teased a lot and so  

Rachel Cram – She learned how to give it back. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – I am not so good at it. And so when she goes into repartee my feelings get hurt sooner than later and that’s the end of the play for me you know. It’s, “Oh my goodness.” You know, it isn’t there. But that’s an example. It has to be mutual. The safety always has to be mutual. If there’s more than one playing, it needs to be kept safe for the play to continue because safety is inherent to play. And that’s important because it helps reduce our alarm. 

So when we get into that playful place, the alarm goes away. And that’s again the lullaby, the power of the lullaby and the lament. In that lament, in the music, in the lullaby, it is alarm free and that, that’s incredible because when you’re alarmed, you can’t feel anything else. 

There’s nothing else you can feel. You can’t feel the shape of the hole in you. You can’t feel your joy, you can’t feel anything. Alarm just kind of trumps everything. And when you have this space, it makes it free for all the other feelings to come that are there. It brings all of them back because alarm chases all of them away.  

Our children are becoming more alarmed. All the diagnosis are more anxious, they’re more adrenaline based. All the manifestations of alarm. Well they’re losing their place of play. 

And so they need to find this place. Video games will distract them. But for the most part screen games are based upon an agitated attention that says, “We know you’re alarmed. This is what we’ll trigger off of.” 

So it doesn’t free you from this place. There’s not the place of calm inside. Only true play can give you that place. 

Rachel Cram – Can I ask you a question on that? You started off talking about, ‘we can be in situations where we’re actually in danger but play can make us feel safe.’ Is the inverse also true? We can actually be in places of safety but we can play at danger. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes, but it’s not for real. 

Rachel Cram –  It’s not for real but then are you kind of practicing it in a way. Like, I’m picturing my kids. They like playing games where something’s attacking them and they’re running in their hiding. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – That’s a favorite game. And again that’s so important because it gets the brain used to a certain level of alarm that is not for real. [Text Wrapping Break] 

My third daughter used to play a game. We live right by a ravine. And the worst fears of course are walking as a teenager and the woods are all the way around. Well they used to take turns in the dark chasing each other and they would be screaming, knowing of course it was just play. 

But they were in a sense trying to deal with the alarm that comes of a place that’s very dangerous but when you did it in play, it helps equip you, helps prepare you for that place. So yes, when play is safe you are more likely then to be able to play with your fears in a way that doesn’t spook you. 

Rachel Cram – Often young children create a similar tension to what you’re describing with your daughter.  They want to be chased.  They’ll say, “Chase me, chase me.” That’s part of that isn’t it. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – That’s part of it. It’s all part of it. That’s their favorite game. In fact our two youngest, two boys, every single night I was at home. We played a version of monster. We had carpet samples and I was always the monster. And then they would try to get from one of these safe places, the rug samples, to the other without me catching them. We would play for hours and they wanted to play it every single night. 

Rachel Cram – Wow, what a great game.  All right. So number six.  True play is freely entered. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. The will is preserved. The Freedom. Freedom. When you think of a child, the will of their parents, their teachers, everyone is always imposing them. Their wishes, desires, their agendas. In play, your will is preserved and it’s freely entered. Nobody can make you play and we can’t make ourselves play. But because it’s freely entered, there is no counter will in play. 

Now one of the biggest instincts we have is to counter the will of others when we feel it coercive, when it’s pushing down on us. You know, “Go to bed.” “No, I don’t want to”. You know, “Do this.” It’s there.  

In play, there is no resistance. My youngest grandson is still at an age where he can do those things. You know, “I’m not going to eat it. No I’m not. I won’t do it.” 

And then you bring play into it and, “I bet you it would disappear in one bite,” and then it’s gone in one bite. 

You’ve got this. There’s no counter will. He’s absolutely determined he’s not going to give in to the will of his grandmother and then a little bit of play and there’s no counter will at all. It’s gone.  

Rachel Cram – Now, this requires parents to be able to know how to play themselves, right? Because to come up with that idea of, “I bet that’s going to be gone in one bite!” You have to have an understanding to play yourself as a parent.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well, at least you need to be able to act playful. You know, like, when you collect a baby, I don’t know that you have to be playful but you have to know how to bring play into your eyes, the twinkle in your eyes.  Your voice has to become playful to engage the baby because they will only naturally engage in the play mode. So I think most of us intuitively know you can never do life straight with kids.  

So if you’ve lost your own playfulness… The thing about it is, as parents, we can be under a whole lot of stress, we could have lost our playfulness, we can be depressed but if we can remember what it’s like to be playful we can act playful enough for whatever it takes to engage our children.  And that’s what’s important.  

So yes, ideally speaking, we should know when we’re in trouble when we’ve lost our own playfulness.  And we’ve got to get our play back. 

Rachel Cram – Well, how do you get it back?  How do you get your play back?  

Dr. Neufeld – Well the research shows that a depressive person in the play mode, the changes in the brain within half an hour are phenomenal. The play mode is the opposite of depression. So we need it.  As adults we need it. The older we get the more we need it. So we need to find this but do we need to be playful?  I don’t think so. I mean we don’t need to be, we need to act playful enough to engage our children. 

Rachel Cram – Well so often when things go south, it’s when we just do not have time for that. It’s, “We’ve got to get out the door now quickly.”  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Right. Exactly. We reveal our agendas which is our mistake. We think, “OK, we’re just going to be honest with our children. I need you to do this, I need you to do that.” The worst possible scenario. First of all, the child wasn’t born to fulfill our needs. 

Rachel Cram – Yeah, but you think they are in those moments.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – So, what are we thinking of?  We’re supposed to be for children, not children for us. Secondly, it reveals our will to them, which is very dangerous because it brings out their counter will.  Now that’s the last thing they want to do. And thirdly, again, life isn’t straight. You can’t do this. That’s why we have poetry. That’s why everything is indirect. You know we have to figure out, I want the child to set the table. OK. 

Well, I have two choices: I can engage the attachment instincts. Get them to smile, nod and so on and while they’re nodding say, “I’d really like it if you would set the table now.” Now if the child is very attached to us and there’s no defenses in the way, most likely that will work. 

Or I have to inject a bit of play in it. Really I only have those two choices. And if I can’t figure out one of those two, I’m going to trip over my child.  Their eyes will roll, they’ll balk, they’ll work to rule, it won’t get done the way we want to do it. Or we’ll have such a dutiful child that they lose their own play. And so the child becomes depressed but good and does what he’s told to do but there’s no life in the child. So again we have to figure this out on our part of it before we blurt out our agendas. 

Musical interlude #4   

Rachel Cram – This is a very different way of parenting than perhaps most of us were raised that are parents now. It’s a very different way to think. Ok, so important. 

Okay. We’re on to the seventh one then, which you’ve already talked about a little bit but it needs to be in parameters. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. Yes. There needs to be a beginning and an end. And so there is some kind of signal. If you watch your pet, watch your dog, a dog is very clear about the signal.  They have this kind of play bow that they do, this kind of prance. They often watch you to see if there’s a play signal that is there and then you get to play together.  And the dog is so excited to be able to play.  

We had a dog and cat who would play for hours a day, but they had signals and the cat would signal when the play was over. There’s quite a few mammals that have figured out a language that they can play together and there’s all kinds of evidence that they’ve got these kind of play signals. 

Because we’ve been so work based in our society. We have forgotten those basic play signals. Like when you want to play with your partner, how do you do it? What is it that you do? Is it a bit of silliness that you do?  Do you say something you really don’t mean and they know you don’t mean? And so it says to them, “OK, we’re playing.” And so it’s time for repartee or it’s time for those kinds of things, but you’ve noticed what it is and then how is it over. And you begin to watch the play signals we have. And then it’s very important to find this with your child because we have serious parenting to do and we’re not always playful in it.  But when we’re in the play mode and when we’re inviting them to play what are our signals there?  And so we signal in and we signal out. So there are clear parameters. 

Rachel Cram – Ok, so number seven, clear parameters. Got that. So, these are the seven distinctives of true play.  And you say, the more an activity approximates these seven properties, the more it carries with it the ability to take care or our emotions and to grow us as nature intends us to grow. Do you want to a quick recap? A quick run through of the list?  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Sure. So from the top; It’s engaging. It’s not work, it’s not outcome based. It’s expressive. It’s not for real. It is safe. The will is preserved and it’s within set parameters. There’s a beginning and an end. And so this is how nature takes care of us. This is where healing is manifest, these seven properties of play. 

Rachel Cram – So, I’m wondering are there indicators that true play is under experienced in someone’s life? I think as a parent listening you might think, “Well I don’t know if my child is getting enough opportunities for this. I want this for them of course so desperately.” 

How would we know by looking at our child, or looking at ourselves, that our life is not giving us enough of that kind of opportunity? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well the three telltale signs, the three indicators. First of all is, the degree of playfulness. And so the way of thinking about it is; do you see playfulness there or is there a lack of play? 

The second indicator is rest. If there is restlessness you know that the child is in trouble emotionally.  

Rachel Cram – What does that look like?  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Restlessness? A child is continually restless, you know that state of agitation. We need rest. Our brain needs rest. We have a whole rest mode in our system and play is part of that rest mode. That restlessness is an indicator of a system under strain, a system under stress, the child needs more play. 

So if they’re not playful they need more play. If they’re restless they need more play and if they’ve lost their feelings. Children need to feel what they experience and we generally think of feelings as synonymous with emotions but they’re not.  Feelings, like think of being tired. You have to feel rather safe before you can feel your tiredness. You can be hungry and not know it until you’re safe and then you can feel your hunger. For a young child, for instance a 3 year old, they need to feel their bladder pressure. If they don’t feel their bladder pressure they won’t be able to know when they have to go pee. And so under times of stress they’ll begin to wet themselves again or even to soil themselves because they can’t feel it. And that’s true for us all in fact but that is the extreme example of not being able to feel your experience. 

Now, we’re meant to take some stress situationally but at the end of the day we need to get our feelings back. That’s where play comes in because play takes care of that. When our emotions can play we can feel it and all our feelings will come back. And that’s one of the most important functions of play. So these are the three basic indicators.  

Rachel Cram – Ok Gordon, I’m going to try to squeeze in one last question before we close. You’re describing these signs of stress for children. Parenting itself is one of those situations of stress, especially when you’re in your early years of parenting. So I’m just thinking about the playful parent, the necessity of play in adult life, we do lose our feelings often those early years as parents.  

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes we do.  

Rachel Cram – People will say to you, “How are you doing?” And you say, “Fine.” And you don’t realize you’re exhausted. You don’t realize you’re hungry. You don’t realize that you’ve lost your own play. Is there any key pieces of advice that you could give to parents in a time of life where it feels like there’s no time. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well if we need to make time for anything it would be this. Far more important than trying to get ahead, far more important than to try and solve every problem is to know that we can’t do this day in and day out. And when we start losing our feelings we are courting depression, we are courting a numbness, and when we’re saying “fine” because we remember that’s what we should say, when we’re beginning to feel the effects of stress, it’s important. We don’t need a lot of time. It’s these rituals.  

I’ve had clients who are in rough shape, really taken out by what life threw at them and the best way I could help them was to find what it was that had worked for them. Like, were you a dancer? Did you respond to music? Were you painting? Was it the theater?  Was it drama? Was it a book that you would engage yourself in? You know, half an hour a week, start small but protect it with a ritual.  I couldn’t think of anything more important. It’s free. You know, you don’t have to pay a therapist big money for this. It is natural. It is already in you.  There something that will respond deep within. But nothing could be more important because I don’t think anything is more difficult than to parent when you’ve lost your playfulness. Then it’s just sheer work and exhausting 

Rachel Cram – And an incredibly lonely spot to be as well. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It is.  

Rachel Cram – Well as you’re talking there were so many rabbit trails that I just so wanted to chase because this is such a rich conversation. But I think that we will wrap it up now because we’ve been talking for a long time. I’m so appreciative of this conversation Dr. Neufeld.  Thank you so much for your time. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well I enjoy sharing this material. Obviously I’m excited about it. I think this is the best discovery ever. It always was there, it always will be, but being able to bring it to the forefront of our mind and realize that we need to preserve it. So thank you for the opportunity to share. 

Episode 21