Playing with Emotions – Head and Heart

Playing with Emotions – Head and HeartThis article first appeared on the Play and Playground News Center 1-6-14 at

In my previous post I suggested a new way to evaluate play spaces. Rather than focus on the physical attributes such as physical challenge, aesthetics, or safety I proposed that we try to understand the feelings that these spaces invoke in children.Specifically I suggested several distinct types of feelings.

  • Fearsome play are those experiences in which the child feels vulnerable and is extending themselves beyond their comfort zone.
  • Connected play occurs when children are playing together and is generally associated with eye contact.
  • Magic play is on those occasions where children begin to explore the feelings of being and non-being.
  • Joyful play is when the child is in a sense of euphoria.

As I continue to explore this notion of the feelings that children have when they play I have discovered that there is whole universe of emotion to be explored. Here are some additional feeling states for you to consider.


One of the most consistent characteristics of children’s social play is their on-going monolog that provides the “story” about what they are doing. This “script” provides the context for behavior; “I’m the mommy and you’re the daddy and you have to put the baby to bed because I’m making dinner.”

As often as we overhear these charming mini-theatrics we seldom consider how children feel when they are playing in this way. There is, of course, the internal sense of creating a make-believe world where they can experiment with the dynamics of their daily lives. Consider the above script, as a child would experience it if they were without a father in their home as opposed to a child living with both parents. The feeling state would be radically different.

These play scripts also provide an ongoing structure for the social interaction between the players. Once again consider the above script if one of the players comes from a home with same sex parents. The response of the playmate might be; “No, I’m not the daddy, I’m the other mommy.” The subsequent dialog would have a lot to do with the player’s sense of reality and their feelings of inclusion.


The feelings invoked by quest play are related to the feelings supported by story play but are slightly different. In quest play there is a new script element – a “problem.” Typically the problem is to find something: “dig to China” or “find the Ogre’s hideout.”

In quest play the focus is external to the children rather than in story play where the focus is on their own experience. In this sense quest play is less “fearsome” as we have used the term to denote a sense of vulnerability; it is emotionally safer to go on a quest than to expose personal aspects of oneself in an ongoing story that is shared. It is not unexpected, therefore, to see boys typically on a quest while girls create elaborate social stories in their play.


Eureka moments during play are precious. They tend to occur most often during constructive play when children figure out how something works. Of course they can occur during any play but they are most poignant when they are in a social context. This can be seen in quest play when the goal has been achieved, “Here’s the Ogre’s hideout!”

It is important to note that many times the Eureka moment has little to do with the physical world but rather with the emotional flow of the play. The Ogre’s hideout doesn’t exist but is declared by one of the players and their assertion is either accepted or rejected by their playmates. Children naturally seek these Eureka moments and the acceptance of imaginary solutions is a powerful way children reinforce their emotional connections with their playmates.


As adults we know, or should know, when we or those around us are “grounded,” that is, have a sense of themselves and their relation to others. As parents or caregivers we generally pay a lot of attention to whether our children are in a “grounded” state. We most often notice that a child is ungrounded when they are disruptive, but it can also manifest as an emotional disconnect that leaves the child passive and isolated.

Since monitoring kids to try to keep them grounded is a primary focus of caregivers, it is surprising that consideration of this is not also a central part of play designer’s lexicon. Indeed, as we look at typical play spaces, one would conclude that the aim of their creators is to purposefully upset the children. These design blunders include overly stimulating environments, layouts, and features that create competition and conflicting functions such as play sand in a high active area.


Playing with the familiar is an aspect of grounded play but is slightly different in that it is based on allowing and honoring that there is a distinct emotional quality to those things and places that are well known. As with the child’s favorite toy or “blanky,” these familiar things essentially become an extension of the child herself.

When we value the stimulation that comes from the new and novel more than the familiar, we can foster an ungrounded state. I suspect that some of the resistance to playground renovation and the loss of traditional play activities is the sense that these very familiar places and activities have value precisely because they are so familiar.


The feeling states we’ve begun to explore here in Head and Heart are all related in a way; they tell us something about what the conscious mind is doing while the child’s emotions are working through their process. As designers we have focused primarily on what the child is doing and rarely on supporting the associated emotional content.

We will continue to develop these ideas, as well as those in the initial post, but before we delve deeper, I want to explore the feelings associated with physical play. There is much more known and to say about physical play, and my next post will be completely devoted to that topic: Playing with Emotions – Body Play.