Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Play and emotion

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Play and emotion:
What is the emotional effect of play?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure caption goes here.

In order to understand the effects of play on emotions, it is important to define play and its many purposes. Experts have been observing children's behaviour for many years and are specifically interested in understanding their play and what its contributions are towards the child’s development (Singer, 1973). It was in the nineteenth century when experts investigated childhood play and how it affected the individual later in adulthood (Singer, 1973). Theoreticians like Freud (1959) and Piaget (1932) have hypothesised that imaginative play is the foundation for daydreaming later in adulthood (Singer, 1973). Many adults have seen children playing in groups or on their own imagining that the toy they are playing with comes from an impossible place such as outer space; others have heard a child having a conversation with an imaginative friend (Singer, 1973). These types of playing have been given different names such as imaginative play, make-believe play (Singer, 1973), or pretend play (Lillard, Lerner, Hopkins, Dore, Smith, & Palmquist, 2013) all of which fall under the same concept. However, in order to be consistent and not confuse the reader, in this chapter play will be referred as pretend play. It has been found that play helps children to recover from the trauma that an event has produced (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). As a result, experts have used play in therapy settings given that it causes positive changes on children’s affect (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014; Nelson, 2008). In this chapter, several topics will be discussed. First, definitions of play and emotional child development will be outlined. Second, it will be discussed [grammar?] some of the many therapies implemented to help troubled children. Third, research in the area of play and how it affects emotions will be presented. Finally, a summary of the chapter will be exposed alongside with some personal reflections.

Definition of play[edit | edit source]

Krasnor and Pepler (1980) have defined pretend play as a flexible action producing positive affect, being nonlinear and as intrinsically motivational. It is flexible because the child engages freely; it causes positive affect because the child enjoys the playing; it is nonlinear because it has different meanings and it is intrinsically motivational because the play is voluntary (Lillard et al., 2013).

Emotional development[edit | edit source]

Emotional development undergoes several changes from infancy through childhood; moreover, those changes defer from person to person (Peterson, 2010). In the table 1 below, the different emotional expressions showed by an infant throughout the first year of life.

Table 1 - Emotional development throughout the first year of life

Age Emotional expression
Birth Anger and pain, distinctive sounds
1 month Shows irritability through cry
2 months Starts smiling socially
3 months Shows interest to others' smiles rather than being interested in neutral faces
4 months Laughs in response to familiar sounds. Engages in simple games
6 to 12 months Shows primary emotions: Anger, fear and sadness, which are easy to recognise in his or her facial expressions

(Peterson, 2010).

As they[who?] grow and gain emotional experiences, they start mastering control over emotions (Peterson, 2010). Perhaps one of the most important emotional developments is attachment, which foundations starts in early infancy and with interactions with his or primary caregiver (Peterson, 2010). Those feelings of attachment are mutual love and closeness, which in turn serves as a foundation to form close relationships with others (Peterson, 2010). In table 2 it is described the phases of attachment during infancy and childhood.

Table 2 - Phases of attachment

Age Phase Description
0 to 2 months Pre-attachment Social responsiveness and generalised sociability
3 to 7 months Attachment in the making Readiness for attachment. Person recognition and stranger wariness
8 to 24 months Clear attachment Separation anxiety. Prefers to stay close to the attachment target
2 years onwards Goal-directed partnership The child expresses sensitivity to caregivers needs

(Peterson, 2010)

Emotional effects of play[edit | edit source]

The significance of play activities are equally important for children living in a conflictive home and for those children raised in a relatively optimum home (Hartley, Frank, & Goldenson, 1952). For those children who live in disturbed homes or experienced difficult situations, such as divorce or alcoholism, play serves as a means of releasing tension and anxiety (Hartley, et al., 1952). Play is also a means to realise[spelling?] frustration, a common feeling experienced by many children, living in troubled homes or not (Hartley, et al., 1952). It is also believed that play possesses therapeutic factors that help the child to heal[factual?]. For instance, Schaefer and Drewes (2014) identified that play facilitates communication. They suggested that children use self-expression to communicate with the environment, which in turn serves as an emotional release. As Axline (1947) stressed, through play children freely explore their emotions; play is children’s means to express themselves. Sometimes, children refuse to communicate verbally; however, through play and the use of toys they gain an understanding of the event not being verbally communicated (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014).

Play also provides access to the unconscious (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). In one his books, Freud told the story that took place in his home where he received a phone call from a client who wanted to see him immediately. In a winter day, he left his comfortable warm home to go to his office to meet his patient. Unable to open the door, he suddenly realised that he was using his house key realising that he wanted to go back to his comfortable and warm house (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Freud explained that sometimes humans experience feelings that are out of their awareness just as his experience with one of his clients (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Similarly, children express their inner feelings through play using toys as their words (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Play allows the child to express his or her internal emotions in a safe environment giving access to the unconscious thoughts (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). In 1976, Anna Freud explained that the most effective way to access children’s unconscious feelings were through play and that through it enormous an amount of data about the unconscious could be obtained as well (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014).

Other theoreticians have suggested that play also promotes abreaction expressions (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Abreaction occurs when the child re-experiences past memories releasing repressed emotions (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). It is important to make a distinction between abreaction and catharsis. It was suggested that abreaction releases emotions and increases insight (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Abreactive play enables the traumatised child to release negative feelings where the child re-enacts past memories (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Abreactive play assists to integrates [grammar?] traumatic events by means of pretend play where the child is free to imagine alternative realities; as a result, the child who has been humiliated can regain a sense of dignity or self-efficacy (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). On the other hand, catharsis releases negative feelings such as anger, aggression or sadness allowing the individual to lessen the negative affect; consequently, positive affect could increase (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). By means of catharsis, the individual not only releases negative emotions but also could become aware of the negative affect they produce and eventually have control over them (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). In regard to cathartic play, it allows the child to release the repressed or interrupted self-expressions, which results in the child experiencing satisfaction and positive affects (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Hence, releasing aggressive energy in the safety of the playroom could prevent subsequent aggressive behaviour in other settings such as school and other environment that requires the child to engage in social interaction (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014).

Pretend play also allows children to manage their stress (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Today’s life style causes stress that impairs people relationships; this is also true for children (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). The American Psychological Association (2010) conducted a study, which revealed that children showed physical symptoms of anxiety. They found that overweight children were more likely to be stressed; overweight children also perceived their parents as experiencing more stress than non-overweight children. Not surprisingly, overweight children reported to have troubles falling asleep, engage into fights and feel anger, which are believed to be symptoms of stress (American Psychological Association, 2010). Having said that, experts point out that play has different roles in stress management; for instance, pretend play provides the opportunity for desensitisation as the child is exposed to the stressful event through fantasy or pretend play (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Experts suggested that some objects could promote stress reduction in children (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011). Homeyer and Sweeney (2011) explained in their manual that sand trays are one of the objects that relaxes children. Pretend play helps children to improve their resiliency, as well as providing them the opportunity to develop strategies and skills to manage stress later in life (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Therefore, when a child is deprived of the opportunity to play, he or she is also been deprived of the opportunity to improve stress management skills (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014).

MPlay promotes secure attachment as well (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Playful interactions between parents and children promote the emotional well-being of the child, which in turn increases secure attachment (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Additionally, smiles and laughter between parent and child activates the bonding pathway in the brain allowing secure attachment (Nelson, 2008). Secure attached children send clear messages to the caregiver that in turn helps the child to have his or her needs met (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Hence, play that promotes laughter improves children’ attachment (Nelson, 2008). As a result, secure attachment provides the individual with social competence, self-control and emotional well being (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014).

Another benefit of play is that it is a means that helps moral traits to develop (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). According to Piaget, moral development can be observed through play (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Piaget theorised that children develop moral traits as they interact with peers (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Children in the heteronomous stage believe in ‘imminent justice’, which is passed down from an authority figure (Piaget, 1965). The term heteronomous refers to the adherence to obedience to rules; in this stage of moral development the child follow the rules as he or she experience fear of punishment (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). At the same time, during this stage children are egocentric, which lead them to ignore others point of view (Piaget, 1965). However, when children start to interact with peers they learn to accept others’ perspectives (Piaget, 1965). Piaget (1965) stated that when children play games they negotiate relationships and rules and as a result, moral development occurs. However, at early stages, children are egocentric and find it difficult to accept others’ suggestion in game play (Piaget, 1965). As they grow older their egocentric traits fade and they come to accept rules (Piaget, 1965). In conclusion, pretend play serves as means of reducing stress, promoting moral development and developing secure attachment. It also allows the child to express emotions (abreaction) and it provides access to the child unconscious thoughts and feelings (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014).

Therapies[edit | edit source]

Play Therapy[edit | edit source]

Many children experience difficult events in their life that induce them to experience negative emotions. In order to lessen those emotions, experts have found that through play children are able to overcome adversity (Mowder, Rubinson, & Yasik, 2009). Play therapy uses play as a curative factor and play-based interventions to treat the troubled child (Mowder et al., 2009). Through play, the therapist helps the child to express his or her emotions at early developmental stages when the child may lack verbal communication (Mowder et al., 2009). The therapist uses toys that contain therapeutic value to help the child to achieve emotional competence and functional behaviours (Reddy, Files-Hall, & Schaefer, 2005). Play therapy assumes that pretend play is the natural language of children, thus its core instrument is using play in therapy settings (Mowder et al., 2009). Through play, the child communicates effectively and helps him or her [grammar?] in self-regulation and in alleviation of stress (Mowder et al., 2009). Play therapy is based on different theoretical approaches, which will be described in the following section.

Theoretical approaches to play therapy[edit | edit source]

Child-centered play therapy[edit | edit source]

In 1969, Axline adapted Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy (Mowder, et al., 2009). In this therapy, the therapist's empathic behaviours are key features as this allows the child’s transformation (Mowder et al., 2009). Child-Centered Play Therapy (CCPT) is a non-directive therapy where the professional allows the child to express emotions without judgements, demonstrating empathy and unconditional regard (Ray, 2011). CCPT uses toys in the therapy session, which should be specifically selected according to the child’s need in order to the toys to have therapeutic value (Ray, 2011). In their study, Ray and colleagues observed children playing to discover which toys were more preferred (Ray, Lee, Meany-Walen, Carlson, Carnes-Holt, & Ware, 2013). Ray et al. (2013) divided the toys by categories: family/nurturing (sand tray, kitchen, food); scary and aggressive (army soldiers, plastic sword); expressive (water, paint, craft/art) and pretend/fantasy (dress-up clothes, foam balls, magic wand). The study yielded that family/nurturing and expressive categories toys are the most used by children (Ray et al., 2013). In regard to applicability, CCPT has been used to treat children’s aggressive behaviour (Swan & Ray, 2013; Ray, Blanco, Sullivan, & Holliman, 2009). In two different experiments carried out by Swan and Ray (2014) and Ray et al. (2013), researchers found that CCPT reduced aggressive behaviour after intervention. In cases of aggressive behaviours, the therapist provides the child with toys that allow him or her to express their aggression in a safe environment (Ray et al., 2013). For instance, one of the most popular objects that help the child to release aggressive energy is the ‘Bobo’ doll (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014). Children release stress through pretend play; therefore, releasing aggressive behaviour through play the child would regain emotional control (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014).

Psychoanalytic play therapy[edit | edit source]

In 1930, Anna Freud and other theorists such as Hug-Hellmuth and Melanie Klein adapted adult therapy to use with children in which they utilised toys as a tool for treatment and as means to access the unconscious (Mowder et al., 2009). Change was achieved through play where the child could feel safe and the therapist used empathic listening to respond to the child’s play (Mowder et al., 2009). Once the therapeutic relationship was developed the therapist was ready to analyse transference and countertransference, which were important features of the therapy (Mowder et al., 2009).

Adlerian play therapy[edit | edit source]

This therapy supports Adler's opinion that an individual is social, capable for decision-making and most important, the person is indivisible (Mowder et al., 2009). Adlerian play therapy is goal-directed where the child is helped to explore alternative solutions and perspectives about a traumatic event (Mowder et al., 2009). Toys are used to develop rapport with the therapist and transmit several emotions in a safe environment of the playroom (Mowder et al., 2009). The therapist also includes role-play activities where the child has the opportunity to play out real life situations; this allows the therapist to test the child emotional limits and abilities (Mowder et al., 2009).

Jungian play therapy[edit | edit source]

Jungian play therapy theory derives from Carl Jung who was a contemporary to Sigmund Freud (Allan & Brown, 1993). However, it is paramount to understand Jung’s theory of the psyche first. He believed that the psyche of the mind was divided in three main areas: the conscious mind, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious (Allan & Brown, 1993). Some personal experiences that were repressed, he stressed, were stored in the personal unconscious (Allan & Brown, 1993). The collective unconscious, on the other hand, contained archetypes that are psychological structures that integrate psyche and body, which helps humans to understand their environment (Allan & Brown, 1993). In regard to the psyche of the infant, Jung believed that it was not much different from the adult (Allan & Brown, 1993). Children’s psyche also contains archetypes that help the child to grow and survive (Allan & Brown, 1993). He theorised that the main archetype of a child’s psyche is the ‘self’, which in turn possess the urge to mediate between ‘ the good and the bad’ (Allan & Brown, 1993). This struggle helps the infant to grow and maturate (Allan & Brown, 1993).

Applying this theory to play therapy, the child first externalises conflictive internal emotions; this externalisation or projection of feelings is directed onto toys and helps the child’s ego to deal with unconscious negative feelings (Allan & Brown, 1993). As the child is in charge to structure the play, his or her ego starts to gain control over his or her emotions and as a result, the child feels less overwhelmed and in control over feelings (Allan & Brown, 1993).

Research on play and emotions[edit | edit source]

Howard and McInnes (2012) studied children's predisposition to carry out play activities. They found that children who perceived the activity as play were more willing to participate; moreover, these children showed higher emotional well-being. On the contrary, those who perceived the activity as ‘not like play’ were less engaged and less willing to carry out the task (Howard & McInnes, 2012). Furthermore, children who perceived the activity as ‘play’ were happier as they smiled more, and they moved freely around the room (Howard & McInnes, 2012). On the hand, children in the ‘not like play’ category found it difficult to concentrate and they moved around the room less frequently (Howard & McInnes, 2012). Howard and McInnes (2012) suggested that the effects of an activity perceived as ‘play’ caused better developmental outcomes since the child is at lower risk of failure. They go beyond and suggest key points to considering when planning activities that require the child full engagement. They proposed to create playful environments considering the child's point of view. However, in order to be able to plan and develop playful environments, professional development should be taken into account as well (Howard & McInnes, 2012). That is, professionals should pursue academic development in order to perform adequately when helping the child (Howard & McInnes, 2012).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Many experts and theorists have agreed that play and emotions are two salient and important features of children’s lives, where the former causes changes to the later (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014; Ray et al., 2013; Mowder et al., 2009). Since play has been found to change children’s negative affects, many therapies have been developed in a way that most of them include play as the core technique to treat the trouble child. Among those therapies are child-centered play therapy (Ray et al., 2013); Adlerian play therapy (Mowder et al., 2009); Jungian paly therapy (Allan & Brown, 1993) and psychoanalytic play therapy (Mowder et al., 2009). Child-centered play therapy is the most implemented and researched (Ray et al., 2013). Through play, children develop emotional skills that help them to cope with stress, socialise with peers and adults, develop healthy feelings of attachment and release anger and aggression (Schaefer & Drewes, 2014; Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011; Nelson, 2008). The importance of including play in school settings is clear. The play should be goal-directed and intentional in order to help children to overcome difficult emotions, which deprive them from developing in an optimum way. Perhaps, if schools, parents and government work in partnership to help children in difficult situations societies would develop psychologically healthy adults. In other words, a psychologically healthy child would become a psychologically healthy adult.

References[edit | edit source]

Allan, J. & Brown, K. (1993). Jungian play therapy in elementary school. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 28(1), 30-41. Retrieved from:
American Psychological Association (2010). Stress finding in America. Washington, DC: Author.
Axline, V. A. (1947). Play therapy. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Freud, S. (1959). Creative writers and daydreaming. In Strachey, J. (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IX. London: Hogarth.
Hartley, R. E., Frank, L. K., & Goldenson, R. M. (1952). Understanding Children’s Play. New York: Columbia University Press.
Homeyer, L., & Sweeney, D. (2011). Sandtray: A practical manual. New York, NY: Routledge.
Howard, J. & McInnes, K. (2012). The impact of children’s perception of an activity as play rather than not play on emotional well-being. Child: Care, Health and Development, 39(5), 737-742. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2214.2012.01405.x
Krasnor, L. R., & Pepler, D. J. (1980). The study of children’s play: Some suggested future directions. In K. H. Rubin (Ed.), Children’s play: New directions for child development (pp. 85–95). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1-34. doi: 10.1037/a0029321
Mowder, B. A., Rubinson, F., & Yasik, A. E. (2009). Evidence-based practice in infant and early childhood psychology. New Jersey: Wiley.
Nelson, J. K. (2008). Laugh and the world laughs with you: An attachment perspective on the meaning of laughter in psychotherapy. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36(1), 41-49. doi: 10.1007/s10615-007-0133-1
Peterson, C. C. (2010). Looking forward through the lifespan. Queensland: Pearson.
Piaget, J. (1939). The language and thought of the child. New York: Hogarth.
Piaget, J (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgement of the child. New York, NY: Free Press.
Reddy, L. A., Files-Hall, T. M., & Schaefer, C. E. (2005). Empirically based play interventions for children. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rey, D. (2011). Advanced play therapy: Essential conditions, knowledge and skills for clinical practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Ray, D. C., Blanco, P. J., Sullivan, J. M., Holliman, R. (2013). An exploratory study of child-centered play therapy with aggressive children. International Journal of Play Therapy, 18(3), 162-175. doi: 10.1037/a0014742
Schaefer, C. E., & Drewes, A. A. (Eds.). (2014). The therapeutic powers of change: 20 core agents of change. New Jersey: Wiley.
Singer, J. L. (1973). The child’s world of make-believe: Experimental studies of imaginative play. New York: Academic Press.
Swan, K. L. & Ray, D. C. (2014). Effects of child-centered play therapy on irritability and hyperactivity behaviours of children with intellectual disability. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 53(2), 120-133. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1939.2014.00053.x

External links[edit | edit source]