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What Really Happens In the Play Room

Brittany Presley

Child psychologist at work

I often get questions about play therapy like, “Are you just playing games?” “How is this different from kids playing at home or at school?” etc. The answer to those questions are always “We are doing so much more than playing games and yes it is different than playing at home.”  Most often, when play therapy is explained we talk about how “play is the child’s language and toys are the child’s words,” which you’ve likely read on any play therapy website. To really explain play therapy and how it is different than just playing at home can be lengthy so the focus of this blog is to describe some of the interventions we often use during play therapy that are “running in the background” as I like to say—meaning, it may not be the specific focus of that session but it’s happening simultaneously.

Immediacy: “Immediacy” is a term we use to mean we address issues as they come up in the moment. I could be playing with client, an activity of their choice, and if that child snatched something from my hands, I would use that as a teaching moment to express how their action made me feel, offer a positive alternative strategy to try to get their need met, and role play the alternative behavior with the child. In a play situation outside of therapy, that situation would most likely result in crying, yelling, arguing, or tattling or another child and may result in a consequence for the child, whereas the child may not be receiving feedback on an alternative action/behavior and practicing that skill so that it feels more natural to use in a real-life situation.

Problem Solving: Therapy sessions are a great place to learn problem solving skills because often times in a school or home setting there are so many activities and transitions that children don’t have the time to keep making mistakes until they find a way that works for them before an adult steps in to solve the problem. In session, when something isn’t working therapist prompts client to consider other possible solutions and gives them the time and space to try and fail. If needed therapist may wonder aloud about possible solutions for the client to try while still giving them the space to try it for themselves without taking over.

Emotion Identification/ Regulation: We use this to acknowledge to a child that we can see how they are feeling which helps them identify their feelings and learn to talk about them, and therapist may offer a prompt for a coping skill to regulate their emotion. An example, acknowledging they are upset and offering to blow bubbles which helps us take deep breaths to get calm.

Modeling Behavior: Modeling behavior is where the therapist’s behavior models a behavior or strategy they want the client to learn/implement. For example, if we are playing Jenga and on therapist’s turn all the Jenga tower falls, we would make statements that model distress tolerance and encouraging the other player in their win. There are some situations where a client may get upset in a session and doesn’t respond to a prompt for coping skills so the therapist models being taking breaths, or playing with play-doh while appearing calm to signal to the client they could do one of these things to get calm.

Timers: I use timer interventions often, especially to help children practice transitions and awareness of time and this is always used in the background and not the main intervention. If appropriate for the child’s needs I will begin a session by having the child identify what they want to do for the session and then writing the activities down, assigning an amount of time, and setting the timer. This helps them transition from their activities to my planned activity, and if they become upset at transition time then we can use emotion identification/regulation.

Building self-confidence: An example of building self-confidence is that if I think a client is capable of doing something, I will suggest they try it first before I do it for them. If I see they can’t do it by themselves then I will step in to help, but I reassess often to see they’ve learned to do it by themselves before assuming they still cannot. I’ve had this growth happen in as little as 3 weeks. When I see the client accomplished something new, I celebrate with them and encourage the skills they used to make that progress.

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