Gordon Neufeld: Helping Children Flourish

How can we help our children flourish?

 And what is required for them to reach their full potential as human beings?

 On May 29 in Winnipeg, Gordon Neufeld spoke about how we can help all children grow to be the best people they can be.  Much of what he had to say speaks to addressing the needs of children with autism – because they are, of course, children too.  But even more than that, there are many striking similarities in ideas between what he had to say, and developmental therapies like RDI and DIR/Floortime.

 Gordon Neufeld is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist with over 40 years of experience with children and youth and their caregivers. His area of expertise is child development.  Dr. Neufeld is an international speaker, a bestselling author (Hold On To Your Kids) and a leading interpreter of the developmental paradigm.

 What Does “Flourish” Mean?

Dr. Neufeld spoke of the potential of every human being to develop in three ways.  A flourishing child has:


Each of us has the opportunity to become independent and unique, to develop our own identity, recognizing ourselves as different in perspective and ability from other people.

A child flourishing in this way expresses curiosity and interest, developing skills and understandings in areas of strength.  He or she is energetic and is rarely bored.  This child takes initiative and also responsibility for his or her actions.  He or she is able to think about, describe and evaluate his or herself, and is continually moving toward independence and competence.  This child knows how to set boundaries and make good choices.


An adaptive child is capable of learning and being changed through new experiences and understanding.  He or she is resilient and resourceful, able to recover from  traumatic experiences, even benefiting from adversity.  This child learns from the consequences of his or her actions.

Social and Emotional Maturity

A social child is able to form warm and secure attachment, while at the same time maintaining their own separate identity.  He or she is civilized, responsible, considerate, respectful, egalitarian.  This child is good-tempered, emotionally balanced and well-regulated.

He or she can appreciate and have empathy for the perspectives and needs of others, even when they are in conflict with his or her own thoughts and needs.

You may be thinking, not every adult reaches this level of development – and that’s true.  The achievement of these qualities is a lifelong journey.  But we can give children a good foundation to set them in the habit of growth.

How Do We Get There?

It’s not genetics…

It’s not direct teaching – or use of behavioral consequences – either.  In fact, the attempt to directly teach vitality, versatility, and social and emotional health can actually be counterproductive.

Interestingly, the foundation of childhood growth is engagement in play.

The Importance of Play

Children need to engage in true play.  As Dr. Neufeld pointed out, the importance of play as a factor of development is solidly backed up by research.  In our society, play is an endangered activity; and yet, the less children play, the more social and emotional difficulties emerge.

But what is the essence of true play?

Play is not work – which is an activity where satisfaction comes from the results.  In play, enjoyment is found in the process. Play cannot be addictive or compulsory or repetitive.  It can’t be taught.  It is never the same twice, as it stretches the ever-changing leading edge of a child’s development.

Play is about pretending; it is “a leap out of the constraints of real life and into frames and settings to be explored.”  It’s a way to explore possibilities and express ideas, with beginnings and endings. It is a free-flowing activity where emotions can be expressed without worrying about repercussions.  It is “nature’s greenhouse for sprouting maturity.”

The result of play?  Play sets creativity loose.  In play, the brain’s problem solving networks are programmed, and the conditions are most conducive for true learning. School learning uses the brain that play develops.

Not surprisingly, then, play is an important way to encourage the development of a child with autism.

What conditions support true play?

 1.  Rest

It sounds strange to say that children need to rest in order to learn, but what Dr. Neufeld means is that children need to be free from working at the wrong things.  All growth comes from a place of rest.  Play emerges when children are free from competing activities. Pressure to perform, structured activity, instruction and schooling, screens and stimulation are all distractions from play.

Rest can be both physical and emotional.  A child’s most significant need is the pursuit of relationship.  If a child does not have to work for the love and approval of their parent, they are more free to explore their world through play.

 2.  Soft-Heartedness (Emotional Vulnerability)

Every child needs to find ways to express their emotions in a safe way, where there aren’t repercussions and in a way that does not hurt others.  The first years of a child’s life are foundational to the development of recognizing, expressing, and reflecting on their emotions.  Much of this work is done through play, which is the safest place to explore emotions like anger, hurt, and fear.

Experiences that compel a child to ignore or repress their emotions (wounding experiences), such as continuous disapproval, can cause the child to stop moving through this learning process and numb their feelings.

 3.  Secure Relationships (Attachment)

Alfie Kohn safetyRelationships are foundational to human development!  Ideally, the adult does the work of attachment so that children can rest, explore their feelings, and play.

Dr Neufeld’s suggestion:  provide more than your child is asking for.  If they want reassurance that you will be there when they come home, tell them how much you are looking forward to seeing them, and follow it up with an embrace.  If we take the lead, children can take our affection and guidance for granted.  Make sure they know that nothing they can do will interfere with your love for them.

Strong emotional attachments with caring adults act as an emotional shield: this is how we keep a child’s heart soft, allow them to rest, develop emotions safely and make space for play.

It might be easy to misunderstand this concept as an absence of boundaries, but that is not what Dr. Neufeld means. A part of rest is also that the child knows that his or her parents are trustworthy guides; our children depend on us for leadership.  In their attachment to parents, they are guided into everyday habits and skills that equip them for competence and fulfillment in later life.

The result?

Flourishing children.

To Learn More:

hold on to your kidsHold On To Your Kids, a book written by Dr. Neufeld and Gabor Mate.


The Neufeld Institute Newsletter is a great way to keep appraised of upcoming online courses and events.

Here in Manitoba, Pamela Whyte is a psychologist with much experience working with the Neufeld Institute.  You can find out about upcoming learning opportunities on her website, E. Pamela Whyte, Consulting.


For those who use Facebook, check out the Neufeld Institute’s new Facebook page!


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