TLDR: The history of DIR/Floortime is that Dr. Greenspan initially developed DIR/Floortime by synthesizing the limited knowledge of human development at the time from the likes of BF Skinner and Jean Piaget into a bottom-up birth through childhood framework. He also incorporated findings about sensory and motor development from occupational therapy. He further refined and developed the Floortime framework with years of real world clinical experience.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan telling the history of the DIR Floortime model

Dr. Stanley Greenspan responded to a question about the development and history of DIR/Floortime during a 2009 conference:

Now, many of you have been asking about the history of this model. How did it all start? Way back when I first got interested in mental health, which was in college, I was a sophomore in college, and I was saying, what the heck am I going to do with my life? I only had three choices in my family doctor, doctor, or doctor. And then said, okay, I’ll become a psychiatrist going to mental health. And that was the beginning.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan responded to a question about the development and history of DIR/Floortime during a 2009 conference:

Now, many of you have been asking about the history of this model. How did it all start? Way back when I first got interested in mental health, which was in college, I was a sophomore in college, and I was saying, what the heck am I going to do with my life? I only had three choices in my family doctor, doctor, or doctor. And then said, okay, I’ll become a psychiatrist going to mental health. And that was the beginning.


And I had no idea I would get interested in children at that time. Then as I got into my residency training program in mental health, I said,this starts early in life, in childhood. So I said, Why don’t I do some child psychiatry training? Why waste my third year just being an administrator where you became sort of a chief resident on different services? So I said, okay, I’ll do child psychiatry, but I’ll just do a year of it just to get a flavor. So I was going to work with adults, but I was lucky.


I came down to Washington and worked with Reg Lorry, and he said, babies first three years of life. As I got more and more interested in younger and younger children because it only made sense, I began saying, okay, who are the theoreticians who can help me develop a framework for understanding how development occurs?


So I started reading the psychoanalytic literature. I started reading Piaget. I started reading the behavioral literature because I had taken a course with BF Skinner in college. So I read about operant conditioning. There’s not that much known about human development, not much known known about the human brain. Why don’t I try to master that limited knowledge that is known?


So I began doing some monographs, and this corresponded to after I had done a year of child psychiatry training. I went over to NIMH on a special program and started doing research there. Then I was given an opportunity to go over to the Mental Health Study Center, where I was just there at the right time. They wanted to change things, and I got the opportunity to be director of the mental health study center, and I could create a new program.


We created the Clinical Infant Development Program. And in that program, I hired Serena, and she became our clinical director for our program. We worked with multi-risk families, and that’s where we brought in a lot of the leading experts.


But I did two monographs, one integrating psychoanalytic and operant Conditioning, which is at the heart of ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] theory as a model. And then I did another monograph integrating Piaget and psychoanalysis called Intelligence and Adaptation, which is still available, by the way, for those who are interested. And in the Piaget monograph, and you’ll see the last chapter is basically our DIR/Floortime model in the sense that it has the stages of development, the six stages, core stages, and the advanced stages, which is a synthesis of what these pioneers had observed. But it took the pieces they observed, the affect piece, the cognitive piece. I also studied what the motor theorists had and the sensory theorists tried to learn from my OT colleagues. We had a team of people at the Mental Health Study Center and our clinical development program and put all that into the model.


So that was the beginnings of the model. Many of you asked me how how it all started.


And then we were working with families. So it became informed by the real world, by working with real families and children who were having problems, some of whom were beginning to look autistic even in the first year of life. But we had the chance to follow them progressively. We had a chance to see them as they were developing their problems, not from older child special needs model on down, which is the way the rest of the field was going. So we were coming at it from the bottom up, not from the top down. And that’s why we developed an affect based approach because we saw that that was so critical to all this.


So that was at the heart and the beginning of it. And then it became further and further developed.


And the book, I think, that best describes our current theoretical superstructure. There are many books that, you know are describing our clinical and case studies, and you’re familiar with those, and they’re out in the bookstores. But the book that describes the overarching theory is a book called The First Idea, co authored with Professor Shanker, who’s become my good friend Stuart Shanker, who runs the program up in Canada, where a philanthropist read that book and gave a $5 million grant to start a program at York University because he was a graduate of York University. That’s where we started the program there. And that’s where we’re developing the database now to support these ideas. So that was the beginning of how we developed this integrated way of thinking.

Listen to Dr. Stanley Greenspan recount the history of DIR/Floortime below: