This course is Dr. Neufeld’s latest creation, one which has us all very excited. It is an Advanced Intensive which means that the foundational Intensives – Intensive I and II – must be completed before attending. In addition, the Emotion course and Play course also need to be reviewed before actually attending this course. If not done prior to registering for the course, this material must be reviewed at least before the course begins. Most of the attachment-based developmental approach is breakthrough material, but this Intensive is at the very cutting edge of developmental science, with implications that are profound. The course is available in live format only. The fifteen sessions are spread over five days, with sessions ending at 1:30pm in the afternoon to allow for time with family, or for being a tourist, or to digest the material. We try to locate the course in a destination venue to allow for the occasion to be used for multiple purposes. The focus is on play and emotion in the life of both adults and children. A primary objective is to nurture our own playfulness as adults, making room for emotion and play to dance together as Nature intended.

Course Description

This course focuses on two of the three most important dynamics in the unfolding of human potential: emotion and play. The other dynamic is ‘relationship’, but this topic is covered extensively in other courses and expanded upon in the Attachment Puzzle and Becoming Attached

Emotion and play are also the most neglected of all dynamics. Learning theory - the dominant paradigm of our day - essentially writes play and emotion out of their view of human nature. When you start with an assumption that all behaviour is instrumental and therefore modifiable by its outcome, neither play nor emotion qualify and so are outside their scope of study. Unfortunately, most parents and teachers and ‘experts’ still treat behaviour as learned - an assumption that proves absolutely false when viewed through the lens of emotion and play. 

From the medical model (aka the disease or disorder approach) the focus is on what is wrong - that is, out of order, dysfunctional, abnormal.  Play and emotion do not figure into this rather dismal view of human nature.  This, despite the fact that all mental illness has now been traced to limbic (ie, emotional) system roots and most behavioural diagnoses are associated with a paucity of play in their history.  

Fortunately emotion is now the primary focus of much of neuroscience, giving rise to a whole new field of study called affective neuroscience. And play has become an exciting multidisciplinary field of study, drawing in cultural anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, developmental psychologists, neuroscientists, historians and philosophers. The field has exploded with a plethora of new books and articles, providing plenty of fodder for the serious student and creating an enticing challenge for those of us who feel the need to put the pieces together.  

This course is primarily about the RELATIONSHIP of play and emotion.  From an evolutionary perspective, the beginnings of this relationship are highly revealing, setting the stage for considering the implications in today’s society. When emotion appears in our evolutionary history, the basic reptilian survival instincts become replaced by powerful survival emotions that serve attachment. Proximity with those attached is what increases the probability of survival and so facing separation becomes the fundamental problem that emotion must fix. A dilemma arises in that these raw primal survival emotions (think alarm, frustration, and intensified pursuit)  can threaten the very attachments they are meant to serve. So at the same time that emotion shows up in the mammalian brain, another core system emerges as well -  play. Play allows for emotional activation and expression without repercussions to attachment. As such, play is presumed to be the beginning of culture. The bottom line is that play and emotion were meant for each other - a marriage designed in evolution one could say. When play is subtracted from the equation, there are no end of emotional, behavioural and social problems that result. The implications are profound for parenting, teaching and treatment. 

Unfortunately, play - at least the kind of play that is needed -  has been subtracted from the equation in today’s society, both for children and adults. For children, play is being replaced by screens, instruction, activities, entertainment as well as all manner of false but impotent imitations of play, including videogames, much of sports, and what typically happens at recess and after school.  For adults, play is being replaced by work and by entertainment, and perhaps by some of the same activities as children. 

How do we find our way back? How do we get emotion and play to dance with each other as they were meant to do? How do we create the conditions that are conducive to play in our children’s lives and in our own? How do we become more playful as adults? Where and what are the emotional playgrounds for adults?

The answers start with having a good understanding of true play and the nature of emotion. The course outlines what play can offer emotion and explores why play is an absolute necessity for emotional health and well-being. We focus on the importance of creating playgrounds for the primal emotions of frustration, alarm, intensified pursuit, as well the alpha and counterwill instincts. We touch on playing with masks, playing with words, playing with roles, playing with monsters, playing with toys, playing with music, playing with voices, playing with separation, and playing with death. We look at play and emotion in therapy, art, learning, creativity, humour (including black humour), drama, and everyday life . We tease apart emergent play, expressive play and social play. Hopefully, we discover in the process how to nurture our own playfulness as adults, making room for emotion and play to dance delicately together. Nothing could be more important to the unfolding of human potential, in children as well as adults.


These are universal themes with universal applications. One can come for oneself, or as a parent, teacher, or therapist.  No previous knowledge of the current literature on play and emotion is required. What IS required is a basic understanding of the attachment-based developmental approach and hence the need to have taken the two foundational Intensives first. Also required is a familiarity with the emotion and play material as given in the courses of the same name, in order to set the stage for focusing on the relationship between these dynamics.


• to increase our understanding of emotion and play and the relationship between them
• to appreciate play as a basic human need for both children and adults and not just a frivolous past-time
• to bring play to our consciousness so we can compensate for its loss in our society
• to help our children find the play they need for emotional health and well-being
• to nurture our own playfulness as adults

Topic discussed include:
- why emotion needs play
- play as natural therapy
- laughter and humour as play
- the meaning of silliness and the instinct to be bizarre
- the civilizing effect of play
- why brains work better in the play mode
- what play can do with emotion
- the dark side of play
- how play can soften the heart
- how play serves the function of rest
- the role of emotion in survival
- how emotion can backfire attachment-wise
- how the alarm system is calibrated in play
- the role of play in creativity
- how play civilizes the instinct to resist
- how play tames aggression
- how play fosters curiousity
- how play prepares us for facing separation
- how play prepares the way for attachment
- how play prepares the alpha instincts for caring
- how play is necessary for emotional health and well-being

Course Outline

Day ONE -  Play & Emotion: their essences & relationship 
We review the main constructs of emotion and play, together with their relationship.  

Session One - The essence of play
An overview of play, including the various types of play, typical play things and common playgrounds. 

Session Two - The essence of emotion
An overview of emotion including the three laws of emotion, the primary purpose of emotion and the fundamental problem of emotion when viewed through the lens of attachment. 

Session Three - How Play is the Answer to Problem of Emotion
This session explores in greater detail why emotional health depends upon play. Emotion needs to be taken out of the work mode for a number reasons which are expanded upon. Also explored is the role of play in the formation of culture. 

Day TWO - Attachment and Play
On the second day we look at attachment through the lens of emotion and play. And of course, we must look at facing separation in play.

Session One - Play and core attachment instincts
We explore the pursuit instincts, the home-base instincts, the alpha and dependent instincts, as well as the shyness and counterwill instincts in play. With regards to the alpha/dependent instincts we look at games of hierarchy, of displacement and of competition. With regards to counterwill instincts, we explore at the civilizing effect of stories.
Session Two - Play and the six ways of attaching 
We look at each of the six modalities of attachment as they are manifest in play.  We explore how each modality of attachment first appears in the play mode before entering real life. We expand on playing with touch, playing with sameness, playing with belonging, playing with loyalty, placing with significance, playing with love, playing with secrets, playing with exclusivity. We also look at sex play in this context.
Session Three - Playing with separation and death
We explore how play provides a medium for looking at separation and death from one step removed and why this is important as preparation for real life. We look at the role of fairy-tales, stories, theatre, tragedy, poetry, and song.  

Day THREE - Therapy through the Lens of Emotion and Play

Session One - the TALKING CURE through the lens of play 
The effectiveness of the ‘talking cure’ can actually be traced to its similarities in its essential characteristics to play. This being true, it follows that we should be using play as the model for therapy. We also explore the risks of self-disclosure as it is first and foremost a potent instrument of attachment. 

Session Two - Play as a therapeutic instrument 
Play is Nature’s therapy. We explore how play can get emotions unstuck, soften defenses, and move us to our tears of futility. Suggestions are provided for when play should be the preferred option for therapy. Ideas are provided for using play to treat depression, anxiety, delinquency, autism, bullying and more. 

Session Three - Play therapy with children 
Building upon the knowledge of what true play looks like, as well as upon the assumption that play is natural therapy, we look at what is required for any play therapy to be effective. Unfortunately, when not armed with insight, the methodology involved in many play therapies can get in the way of the natural therapeutic process. 

Day FOUR - Play and the Primal Separation Emotions
Primal emotions need to be played out. The primal and powerful nature of the emotions triggered by separation create a special challenge to keep them from making matters worse attachment-wise. These primal emotions underlie most behaviour and discipline problems as well as emotional disturbance. Since these emotions can exist without any conscious or cognitive component whatsoever, they are best suited to play-based intervention.  

We begin each session by looking at the manifestations of these primal emotions in play for both humans and other mammals. At the same time that play is becoming an endangered activity, the frequency of the problems rooted in the primal separation problems is on the rise.  
Session One - Play and separation-triggered pursuit 
We explore the many games that have separation-triggered pursuit as its driving force. We explore the role of play in addressing the problems arising from intensified pursuit.

Session Two - Play and frustration 
Frustration is by far the most difficult emotion to keep from backfiring in terms of contact and connection. We explore attack themes in play, including art, music and games. We look at aggression as the failure of play to function as an emotional outhouse. And finally we look at play as the answer to taming aggression. 

Session Three - Play and alarm 
The alarm system is one of the most complicated of all emotional systems. Play is required to get this system ready for the real world. We look at the role of alarming play, including monsters, witches and demons. We also take a closer look at Maurice Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are.  Finally we explore play as a way of treating anxiety and other alarm-based problems. 

Day FIVE  - Becoming Playful
The last day is devoted to exploring how we can become more playful.
Session One - Reviewing the reasons to play
We look at playfulness as a general indicator of emotional health and well-being. We will explore the role of play in curiosity and creativity. We also look at laughter and humour through the lens of play.

Session Two - Choosing your playground
We survey the most common adult playgrounds - art, music, theatre, drama, writing, stories, humour and dance - to find what engages us most emotionally.
Session Three - Setting the stage for play to happen
We look at the conditions that are conducive to play and how to provide them for ourselves and our children. Of course, one cannot command play or simply decide to be playful. Doing silly things or acting as if one is playing, is not the same as truly being in the play mode. All we can really do is set the stage for play to happen and then wait. Part of the issue is setting up a time and place for ceasing from one’s work. We discuss how to make space for play in our lives. We also look at the factors to be considered in playing with one’s children.

Registration Details

This course is currently only available in live format. It is not available through Continuing Education. Please check the Events page for future offerings.

Course Coordinator

Tamara Strijack has been a member of the Neufeld Institute Faculty since its inception. She comes to this role with a strong academic background, experience in university teaching, and a professional involvement in treatment and parent consulting.

© 2016 The Neufeld Institute
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