Play and creativity are related but different and both are important aspects of development. Both concepts have massive literatures of their own, popular as well as technical (eg, Amabile, 1996: Creativity in Context. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Basch, 1988; Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books). Nearly every psychodynamic theory includes play and creativity in its conceptual framework. For example, one of the best-known current theories, self-psychology, incorporates features of play and creativity as aspects of transformations of narcissism (creativity and humor) (Kohut, 1966). As we will discuss, play and creativity are also related to other issues such as education, learning, and clinical work of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Play and creativity are not easy to define. They may be nouns (play, creation) or adjectives (playful, creative), or verbs (playing, creating). Let’s look at these ideas from several angles and see if some general ideas emerge.

  • Create, the dictionary tells us, can mean to produce through imaginative skill, and to make or bring into existence something new.
  • Creative can refer to something imaginative, something made new rather than imitated.
  • Recreation or re-creation has been defined as to create again, to form anew in the imagination.

Bertrand Russell (Russell and Wyatt, 1960) addressed these concepts by differentiating between creative and possessive.

“I call an impulse creative when its aim is to produce something which wouldn’t otherwise be there and is not taken away from anybody else” (p. 130).

He used the term “possessive” to mean “acquiring for yourself something which is already there” (p. 130), eg, a loaf of bread, or a position or an office. “If you write a  poem you don’t prevent another man from writing a poem. If you paint a picture you don’t prevent another from painting a picture. Those things are creative and are not done at the expense of somebody else…” (p. 131).

Play may be seen as related to a mental activity, as in “thought experiments”, and as a behavior. Play has been defined as recreational activity, especially the spontaneous activity of children. this begs the question somewhat, in that child psychoanalysis has shown that play in therapy often reflects earlier antecedents which are being repeated in the present.

No specific definition of the concepts will be attempted here. Rather, an effort will be made to capture what they have in common. Those terms appear to convey a sense of imagination, of fantasy…something that is new, different, unique. This leads us to try to understand what underlies these ideas, and for that, we turn to affect theory.

Play and Primary Affects

Play can be viewed from a variety of conceptual frameworks. But how shall we consider play from the perspective of primary affects, ie, what motivates play?

Play may be conceptualized as a process involving the positive affects of interest and enjoyment. It seems to involve oscillations between increases and decreases of interest and enjoyment. Surprise also is part of this process. Surprise quickly can become tinged with positive affects or negative. Even if a negative affect is briefly elicited (e.g. distress), a reduction of tension (enjoyment) can be experienced as pleasurable (i.e. play).

Tomkins (Demos, 1995) links play with excitement (ie, interest/excitement), and as with positive affects in general, discusses maximizing play:

“The child is encouraged and permitted to play with the parents, with peers, and by himself. Many interactions are converted into games and playful rituals which otherwise  might be neutral, dull, or unpleasant. Play is regarded as an end in itself” (p. 170).

Conceptualizing play in this manner has important implications for education, bias and prejudice, and development in general, as we shall explore.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic

It is also useful to consider internal and external perspectives when considering play. Silvan Tompkins wrote in detail about this intrinsic/extrinsic difference (Demos, 1995).

“The issues constitute a polarity extending from the extreme left through a middle of the road position to the extreme right-wing position. The issues ae simple enough. Is man the measure, an end in himself, an active, creative, thinking, desiring, loving force in nature? Or must man realize himself, attain his full stature only through struggle forward, participation in, conformity to a norm, ameasure, an ideal essence basically prior to and independent of man?” (p. 117).

For Tomkins, play and creativity and an intrinsic view come about through focus on the positive affects, whereas the extrinsic view tends to be more related to the negative affects. These ideas have clinical relevance, eg, Winnicott’s True and False Self-concepts.

At this point, the connection between play and creativity emerges again. One of the most consistent themes in this connection between play and creativity has to do with intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation—i.e. a person’s own interest and enjoyment versus goals, expectations, values from the external world.

Scientific creativity is often conceptualized as play, i.e. the feelings of interest, enjoyment, and surprise. Here is a lovely example. Charles Darwin’s manner was described by his son Francis as bright and animated as he worked during his 60’s:

“His love of each particular experiment, and his eager zeal not to lose the fruit of it came out markedly in these crossing experiments—in the elaborate care he took not to make any conclusion in putting capsules into wrong trays. I can recall his appearance as characterizing such mechanical work as counting. I think he personified each seed as a small demon trying to elude him by getting into the wrong heap or jumping away altogether, and this gave to the work the excitement of a game” (Janet Browne, 2002, p. 414-415).

Play and Clinical Work

Play is significant for development (eg, Winnicott, 1971; Stern, 1985). In the face of various feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, and helplessness, young children will often play games in which they are strong superheroes or cowboys or whatever. Fantasy and games are among the ways children have of regulating tensions dealing with trauma, and experimenting with the real world. Freud’s well-known description of his grandson’s game ‘fort-da’ (‘gone-there’) is an example (1920).

Play is one of the major venues of all child therapy—as Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, and others showed. While beyond our current scope, it should be noted that this is a large literature dealing with the technical issues involving play and child analysis and therapy (eg. Winnicott, 1971; Weiss, 1981; Yanof, 1996; Henry, 1998; Holinger, 2016). One of the most fascinating questions emerging is the mutative effects of the play itself as connected with the verbal interpretations (Valeros, 1989).

Play is also important in work with adults. The notion of play in adult therapy might also be said to have presaged the development of so-called relational and intersubjectivity schools of thought, with respect to the psychodynamics and mutative influence of the patient-therapist relationship (Winnicott, 1971, Beiser, 1995).

One is indebted to Donald Winnicott for so many insights, and play is one of them (see Playing and Reality, 1971). Winnicott suggested play was a way of reaching authentic, creative, less-defended part of a person’s personality—i.e. the “True” self, in terms of his True and False Self-distinction (1980). He also famously noted:

“Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of the two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist…” (1971, p. 38). The job of the therapist, then, is “ring the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play…” (1971, p. 38).

Play has also connected with competence and establishing confidence and self-esteem. Harry Harlow, in his work with monkeys, noted:

“The performance of the tsk provided intrinsic reward” (Pink, 2009, p.3).

Robert White (1959) used the term “effectance motivation” or effectance pleasure. For White, competence referred to “an organism’s capacity to interact effectively with its environment” (p. 297). Basch (1988) brings these concepts together to explain how our affective life relates to competence and self-cohesion.


Amabile TM (1996). Creativity in Context. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.

Beiser HR (1995). A follow-up of child analysis: The analyst as a real person. Psychoanal St Child 50: 106-121.

Brown S (2009). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery (Penguin).

Browne J (2002). Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Freud S (2020). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. SE 18: 7-64.

Gomberoff E (2003). Playing the game the child allots. Int J Psychoanal 94: 67-81.

Holinger PC (2016). Further considerations of theory, technique, and affect in child psychoanalysis: Two prelatency cases. International Journal Psychoanalysis.

Kohut H (1966).  Forms and Transformations of Narcissism. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 14: 243-272.

Lang F (2007).  Play in the psychoanalytic situation. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 55: 937-948.

Pink DH (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin).

Russell B, Wyatt W (1960). Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind (First edition). Cleveland: World Publishing Co.

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

White RW (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review 66: 297-333.

Winnicott DW (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, 1965 (pp. 140-152). New York: International Universities Press.

Winnicott DW (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.