Emotion needs to play and play needs the energy that emotion provides. It seems that these two dynamics were always meant to dance with each other, but with the loss of traditional culture, they are having greater difficulty even finding each other. Evolutionary biologists tell us that play and emotion first appear at the same time historically, adding weight to the neuroscience findings that this is a match that was meant to be – a marriage made in evolutionary ‘heaven’, so to speak.

This marriage is in obvious difficulty in today’s society, with serious implications for our children, our families, our schools and society at large. We have lost the cultural ties that bind emotion and play together. Fresh understandings from the science of play reveal that: 1) most of our troubling syndromes today are rooted in emotion; 2) playfulness is conspicuously missing across the spectrum of these syndromes, and 3) the childhood histories of those with diagnosed syndromes are deficient in true play. For our emotional health and well-being, and for that of our children, we need to help play and emotion to find each other again.

The focus of this course is on the relationship of 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.


The prerequisites for Play and Emotion are Play 101, Neufeld Intensive I, Neufeld Intensive II, Science of Emotion, and Play & Attachment. which can be taken individually either as a Scheduled Online Class (when available) or via Self-Paced Study.

Course Description

Emotion and play are probably the most neglected of all human 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 intricate and delicate RELATIONSHIP of play and emotion. When attachment became synonymous with survival in our evolutionary history, a dilemma arose in that the raw primal survival emotions threatened the very attachments they were meant to serve. This is where play comes to the rescue, allowing for emotional activation and expression without repercussions to attachment. 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 imitations of play, including videogames, much of sports, and what typically happens at recess and after school. For adults, play is also being replaced by work and by entertainment.

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 children and adults?

This 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. 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. 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 foundational emotion and play material (Science of Emotion and Play 101) in order to set the stage for focusing on the relationship between these dynamics. This course also builds on the material from Play & Attachment.

Formats & Fees

This course is available in the ONLINE CAMPUS COURSE format. See Course Format Options for format delivery, access, and content details.

Please note that this course is the third of three in our PLAY series (preceded by Play 101 and Play and Attachment). The Play 101 and Play and Attachment prerequisites must be completed before registering.

Tuition includes a four-month Virtual Campus study pass. See More On Online Campus Courses for further information on our two campus course formats (Self-Paced Study and Scheduled Online Class). Visit the course details page to register. If there is an upcoming Scheduled Online Class it will be posted directly above the Self-Paced Study button on the left-hand side.


• 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

Topics 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 tames aggression
- how play fosters curiosity
- how play prepares us for facing separation
- how play is necessary for emotional health and well-being

Course Outline

Session One - HOW play serves emotion: an overview
The course begins with an overview of the six ways play serves emotion. When emotion is deprived of the play it needs to function properly, emotional health and development suffer accordingly. These themes are woven throughout the rest of the course.

Session Two - WHERE play serves emotion: the playgrounds
We have reduced our construct of play to that which children do with toys and in activity playgrounds. As a result, the traditional playgrounds where emotion comes out to play are not being cultivated and preserved as they should. Nor are our children being equipped to enter these playgrounds. We explore some of the traditional playgrounds of emotion such as music, movement, stories, art, drama and humour.

Session Three - How play serves FRUSTRATION and problem solving
The primal separation emotion of frustration is potent, powerful and potentially destructive. Aggression and violence can threaten the very fabric of family and society. Play is the ultimate instrument in taming violence, from toddlers to teens to old-timers. We explore attack themes in play, including art, music and games. We also look at play as the catalyst for developing patience, constructive skills and even creativity in problem solving.

Session Four - How play serves the ALARM system
The alarm system is one of the most complicated of all the 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.

Session Five - How play serves SEEKING and identity formation.
Some of the most common forms of spontaneous childhood play involve closing-the-gap play (eg, chasing, hunting, finding) and altering-the-self play (eg, dress-up, mask play, role play, identity play). We explore the purpose of such forms of play, including the situational fixes for facing separation as well as the formation of identity. We also discuss the construct of integrity as it is developed through play.

Session Six - How play serves RESILIENCE and adaptation
Play serves a profound role in our human capacities to bounce back from adversity and to be transformed for the better by that which we cannot change. Both resilience and adaptation are the handiwork of emotion, and as such, require the service of play to be fully realized. In this session we uncover playfulness as one of the tell-tale signs of optimal functioning. We also discuss how true play creates the conditions that are conducive to resilience as well as facilitates the pivotal turning point in resilience and adaptation.

Session Seven - How play helps to FACE SEPARATION
Some of the most difficult realities to adapt to include our limitations, our finiteness, and our mortality. We explore how play provides an avenue for facing these realities and why this is important as preparation for real life. We look specifically at the role of fairy-tales, stories, theatre, tragedy, poetry, and song.

Session Eight - How play serves SELF-REALIZATION
The prevailing views regarding self-improvement and transformation are basically all variations on the work motif. Play is presented as a natural alternative path to self-realization, in which we allow Nature to have its way with us. We wrap up this course with a discussion on how to carve out some space in our lives as well as the lives of our children, to make room for this all-important emotion-serving play.

© 2024 The Neufeld Institute