Play, pleasure, and pain: The reduction of anxiety through play

L. A. Barnett, B. Storm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An explanation to account for play behaviors which reflect the reenactment of an unpleasant event has been derived from the view that playful experiences serve to reduce anxiety. It has been suggested that play serves as a neutralizing medium by which young children manipulate a traumatic or anxiety‐inducing situation in an attempt to gain mastery over the event. Observations of young children at play have provided some anecdotal evidence, but as yet there has been no systematic investigation of the hypotheses drawn from the psychoanalytic paradigm. The present study induced a conflict situation in preschool children and compared their subsequent play behavior to a matched neutral group. Pre‐ and post‐physiological and behavioral measures of anxiety and emotional displeasure were taken, and durations of categories of play related to the source of the conflict were recorded. Results supported the view that play provides for the expression, and hence reduction, of an unpleasant event, in that the conflict group showed a reliable decrease in anxiety after play, and the play was related significantly more to the source of the anxiety than was the play of the neutral control group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-175
Number of pages15
JournalLeisure Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1981


  • Anxiety‐reduction
  • Child development
  • Emotional development
  • Play theory
  • Play therapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management


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