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Joyful First-Play Activities Drive Parent-Child Bonds and Boosts Brain Potential

Updated: Nov 29, 2018

By Janet A. Courtney, PhD

We often hear about the importance of creating healthy bonds and attachments between parents and children. But what does that really mean? Why is that important? And how do we make that happen?

Some background: In the 1950’s, psychiatrist, John Bowlby, MD (1988) proposed the concept of Attachment Theory that sets forth that emotional and psychological health requires specific types of nurturing life experiences such as warm touch, eye contact, animated vocalizations, and an abundance of joyful, respectful and playful interactions. Secure attachments positively affect the mental health of children in many ways, including an ability to develop on-going close and empathetic relationships with others.

Some of the identifiers of secure attachments are:

  • Trusting Others

  • Being able to make close & caring relationships

  • Having High self-esteem

  • Deeming self as worthy of love

  • Regarding self as socially acceptable

  • Showing Empathy

  • Being Self confident

  • Being able to make connections with others

Joyful First-Play Activities: A Key to Healthy Attachments

Think back to when you were a young child. Who played with you? Who sang to you? And, what did they play or sing with you? Did someone play peek-a-boo with you? Or sing you a lullaby while rocking you? (If you can’t remember, maybe you can ask one of your older family members). These joyful and nurturing interactions are referred to as first-play, or pre-symbolic play (Courtney, 2013), because it is the first type of play that humans experience in life. And unlike symbolic play, which a child can engage in independently, first-play requires an interactive experience with an attuned and sensitive caregiver and is a vital precursor to higher forms of social, emotional, and cognitive development.

First-Play is Brain Boosting

So much is happening within the brain during these exciting playful moments of engagement. We now know that such early-life first-play experiences are linking neural synapses that wire the brain for healthy social engagement. Stuart Brown, the well-known psychiatrist and researcher of play, wrote that this type of joyful union between a parent and child is, "synchronizing the neural activity in the right cortex of the brain" (p.82). This is our relational side of the brain. Moreover, making eye contact during these playful interactions boosts brain potential and is a powerful indicator of social engagement that promotes our ability to read the subtle cues of communication with another. A fascinating research study was carried out at the Baby-LINC Lab at the University of Cambridge where researchers found that when infants and adults engage in mutual eye gazing, coupled with vocalizations, their brainwaves become synchronized. Imagine that!

Nurturing Touch

Just as vital as eye contact is the importance of nurturing touch. When caring touch is provided it releases the essential “feel good” neurotransmitters including oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. Oxytocin, coined as the “love” hormone is also considered the calming and connectivity hormone, which when released simultaneously lowers the stress hormone, cortisol—resulting in helping children relax.

Examples of Joyful First-Play Activities

(Tip: Be creative to adapt these activities from infancy to an older child.)

  • Patty-cake

  • Peek-a-boo

  • Itsy Bitsy Spider

  • "So Big"

  • "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"

Remember “This Little Piggy?” Give a try here:

This Little Piggy

This little piggy went to the market.

(Wiggle the big toe)

This little piggy stayed home.

(Wiggle the 2nd toe)

This little piggy had _________ (Fill in blank with yummy food; Wiggle the 3rd toe)

This little piggy had none.

(Wiggle the 4th toe)

This little went wee, wee, wee, (Wiggle the 5th toe)

All the way home. (Run & bounce fingers up the body to “dance” on chest.)

First-play interactions are unique to every culture and some English activities may not be known in other languages as they have their own specific developmental games and songs. A wonderful thing! They all support the building of secure attachment relationships.

*Important Note: Before you engage in any activity with your infant/child, pay attention to their cues of readiness to engage....Even for infants we can "ask their permission" first before an activity and pause to see their response. This sends a powerful message from the "get-go" that they are respected!

Learn more about the importance of First-Play interactions in Dr. Courtney's TEDx Talk


  • Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York, NY: Basic Books.

  • Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York, NY: Penguin.

  • Courtney, J.A. (TedxDelray Beach) (2013, September 20). The Curative Touch of a Magic Rainbow Hug.

  • Courtney, J. A., & Nolan, R. D. (2017). Touch in Child Counseling and Play Therapy:

  • An Ethical and Clinical Guide. New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Leong, V et al. Speaker gaze increases infant-adult connectivity. PNAS; 28 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.1101/108878

About Dr. Courtney

Janet A. Courtney, PhD, Registered Play Therapy Supervisor. She is Founder and Editor of FirstPlay® Café and FirstPlay® Infant Story-Massage and FirstPlay Kinesthetic Storytelling® (or "BACK Stories" as kids know them). She is co-editor of Touch in Child Counseling and Play Therapy: An Ethical and Clinical Guide and is Chair of the Ethics and Practice Committee for the Association for Play Therapy and former President of the Florida Association for Play Therapy. Dr. Courtney offers a Certification to practitioner in FirstPlay® Therapy. She is author of the children's book, The Magic Rainbow Hug (an interactive first-play "BACK-Story" for parents and children). Visit:

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Merab Chunge
Merab Chunge
Nov 11, 2022


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