Is immersive daydreaming a form of play, and why does that matter?

When we have insufficient play in our life as adults, we suffer tremendously. We get emotionally exhausted.

Gordon Neufeld

This post was inspired by an episode of the Family 360 podcast with Dr Gordon Neufeld. Dr Neufeld is a clinical psychologist specialising in child development, and he’s studied the importance of play in emotional development and in healthy emotional regulation in both children and adults.

But what exactly is play? And does daydreaming count? Dr Neufeld defines play as an activity that fulfils all seven of the following characteristics:

1. Play is engaging

Play feels good in the moment. It holds our attention so that we’re not easily distracted. I think we can all agree that daydreaming ticks that box.

2. Play is not outcome based

We don’t play because of what we want to get out of it. We don’t play to win or to master a new skill. It isn’t something we do because it’s good for us or because it achieves something. When we play, the activity is its own reward. Daydreaming ticks that box too.

3. Play is expressive

Play comes from the inside out. Activities such as playing video games and watching TV don’t count as play, because when we watch TV, the stimulation is coming from the outside in. Daydreaming isn’t necessarily outwardly expressive. But I think the basic point here is that play is internally generated rather than externally generated, and daydreaming is certainly that.

4. Play is not for real

Play doesn’t count. You can say or do things that you’d never say or do outside of the play situation. You can try out situations you don’t really want to experience for real. You can experiment with what-ifs. You can be dramatic. I can’t think of a better place to do that than in our daydreams.

5. Play is safe

You can only truly play when you feel emotionally safe, when you know your feelings aren’t going to get hurt. If you don’t have that safety, there will always be an element of fear: fear of rejection, fear of being judged. And that fear gets in the way of processing any other emotions. But in our daydreams, we control everything, and that control means our daydreams are the safest place that we can possibly play.

6. Play is freely entered

None of us like being told what to do. When someone tells us to do something, it’s very natural to feel some resistance. But with play, there’s no resistance. You do it when you want to, not because someone else asked or expected it of you. Daydreaming is freely entered; even if it sometimes feels like a compulsion, it’s a compulsion that comes from inside, not something that’s imposed on us by someone else.

7. Play has clear parameters

Clear parameters means that we know when we’re playing and when we’re not. We know when all the rules of play apply – when it’s not for real, when the outcome doesn’t matter, etc. In this context, daydreaming has very clear parameters because it happens in the safe space of our own minds and we know that what we imagine is just a fantasy and doesn’t affect what goes on in the real world.

When I was a child, I thought that daydreaming was somehow a “lesser” form of play. I had the idea that play was something you did with other people, and that any activity you did on your own was just how you filled your time when you didn’t have anyone to play with. But nowhere in Dr Neufeld’s list is there any mention that play has to involve other people. In fact, when he talks about how adults play, many of the examples he uses are generally thought of as solitary creative pursuits – painting, drawing, writing, music, etc.

Play isn’t confined to childhood; it’s important for adults too. In childhood, play helps to build new brain circuits. But in both children and adults, play helps to manage stress and build resilience. It helps us to work through and manage our emotions. It allows us to turn a stressful situation into something entertaining, and therefore allows the stress to move through us and out of us in a safe way. Suppressing play can equate to suppressing our emotions, which can lead to mental health problems.

The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression

Brian Sutton-Smith

Any activity when done to excess takes us away from other important aspects of our lives. Daydreaming is no different. Maladaptive daydreamers are well aware that daydreaming too much can cause problems in our professional and social lives. But in a society where adults have relatively little time or opportunity to play, daydreaming could be a convenient way of introducing play into whatever spare moments we have.

So rather than viewing daydreaming as an unhealthy coping mechanism that allows us to escape from problems and emotions we can’t handle, perhaps we should think of daydreaming as play time, because, as Dr Neufeld points out, play is essential for all of us if we want to remain emotionally healthy.