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Play Therapy: It’s Not Just Glorified Playtime

Play Therapy for ChildrenHave you ever noticed the glazed look your 9 year-old gives you when you begin to give a lecture or the way your 4 year-old begins looking around the room when you sit him or her down to have a “talk”? Have you noticed that when your 6 year-old attempts to tell you about her day at school, they rarely just use words? Their action figures get involved or their dolls and stuffed animals become characters in the storyline. This is because play is a child’s most natural form of communication, not words.

Play is an essential activity in life. As adults, most of our earliest memories involve play in some way. We may not remember details of when we were little, but most of us can remember what our favorite toy was or the games we liked to play with our friends. An infant’s earliest activities are also play related- peek-a-boo, this little piggy, tummy time, etc. Therefore, it is not surprising that play is one of the most natural and comfortable activities to engage in throughout childhood and beyond. In fact, children learn to play long before they learn to speak.

What is Play Therapy?

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines play therapy as, “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.” Play Therapy is based on the fact that play is a child’s language and toys are their words (Landreth, 2002). Children communicate their thoughts and feelings through play like adults use words. They don’t tell us, they show us. So often I hear parents tell me how intuitive their children are or how they seem notice things that you wouldn’t think they would notice. This goes to show that children’s cognitive abilities develop early while their verbal communication abilities are slower to progress. Therefore, when a child is struggling with social, emotional or behavioral issues, it just makes sense to use a child’s natural language to find solutions. Using play therapy breaks down the barriers of communication that exist for children. They are still learning what words mean and how to use them properly but using words to express themselves accurately and appropriately isn’t developed fully.
Play Therapy is creative by nature and is tailored to children and their individual needs. Therefore, the interventions and metaphors used during a session are uniquely designed to suite each particular child. A child’s interests are also often incorporated. Metaphors, analogies, and symbolism can be found anywhere. The death star from Star Wars can be used to represent anger. A playbook can be transformed from football plays to coping strategies for ADHD or anxiety. The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly can be used to transform a child’s self-esteem. By making something interesting and familiar, it becomes more memorable and effective.

Therapeutic Play vs. Regular Play

Therapeutic play is more than just getting to play your favorite game. When a child enters the playroom, he/she is given the opportunity to express themselves in a way that they feel most comfortable, using such things as sand, puppets, dolls, knights, castles, art supplies and so much more. Their play has a purpose other than entertainment and having fun.

While play therapy is fun for the child involved, it also involves “work.” However, the work isn’t like school work. They use the toys to process and work through whatever it is they are struggling with utilizing symbolism, metaphors and analogies to express themselves accurately. A child might use an egg to represent feeling breakable, dragons may represent their anger (or an obnoxious sibling), fences or barriers may be a child’s way of feeling trapped or contained. Toys give children the freedom to express themselves in a way that makes sense to them when words just don’t seem to fit right. Play Therapy uses this form of expression to facilitate such things as healing, growth, and development.

The Importance of Safety and the Relationship

One of the most important aspects of play therapy, aside from the play space, is the relationship between the child and therapist. Like any therapeutic relationship, trust, safety and security are vital. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a sense of safety and security is second only to food and shelter. Therefore, when children enter the therapeutic playroom, they won’t find a counselor sitting in a grown up chair looking down at them asking questions, like most other adults they know. Instead, they will see their counselor on the floor surrounded by toys and objects that speak their language. Rather than being told what to do and given a lot of rules to follow, they will be given the freedom to explore and decide how they want to spend their time. The first few play sessions with a child center around building trust and safety rather than jumping straight to the problem at hand. Once the rapport is built however, a child feels safe enough to begin diving into what has brought him/her to therapy. Then the next phase of therapy begins.

The Benefits of Play Therapy

Play therapy addresses a wide range of childhood issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, behavioral issues, learning disabilities, developmental delays, divorce, grief and so much more. The benefits of play therapy include:

  • Encouraging open, effective, and voluntary communication
  • Learning appropriate behaviors and coping skills
  • Healthy emotional expression and regulation
  • Enhanced self-esteem and self confidence
  • Stress Reduction
  • Promoting creative problem solving skills
  • Enhanced social skills

The Power of Play

Children often come into play therapy defeated, confused, overwhelmed, and feeling as though their world is out of control. However, once a child sees the playroom and realizes that it is a world they can understand and communicate in, they often visibly relax. Allowing children this freedom to explore what is bothering them is healing in and of itself. Children heal from a nasty divorce, learn to calm themselves before they explode into a temper tantrum, and develop a high level of confidence to overcome struggles with anxiety, depression, or bullying. They move from self-loathing to self-acceptance and high self-esteem. That is the power of play.

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