I have asked my colleague, Kathy Gleason, M.A., LMFT, to tell our readership a little bit about play therapy. As you will see it is useful for children, to gain the necessary emotional or relational strength they often need but don’t know how to talk about to their parents. So, Kathy, please explain what play therapy is all about.
When many people hear the words “play therapy,” they envision taking their kids to play games with a therapist and aren’t too sure how that will help change their situation. While parents likely believe it will be more fun for their children than standard talk therapy, many parents are wary of paying money “just to have their kids play.” After all, they can do that at home, many parents will say. What many people don’t realize is that they cannot play at home in the same manner as they can in a therapist’s office. Most importantly, play is a much more natural mode of communication for children than talking, which is why it is the most fitting medium for working through emotional issues with children.
So, you may still be wondering exactly what play therapy is. What does it look like in the room and specifically why does it work? Play therapy is a unique growth experience in which a child develops an understanding of and respect for him or herself and others, develops appropriate coping skills, and learns how to set appropriate and healthy boundaries and to be accountable for his or her actions. These goals probably sound a lot like those for adults seeking the more known talk therapy. And as with adults, this process takes time. Just as children don’t learn to swim or play baseball overnight, learning new life skills takes consistent practice over a period of time. What’s different with play therapy is that instead of just talking about their struggles, children use some form of play to work through them. This might include various types of games, pretend or dramatic play, sand tray use or different forms of artwork.
Because play is understood to be children’s primary language, it is the most natural way for them to work through difficult issues. No child wants to be or can be forced into thinking about something in a new way or into learning a new skill. The play environment allows this process to occur at a pace that the child can monitor, giving him or her a needed sense of control when much in his or her life feels chaotic. Further, the use of play and the resulting symbolism allows children to externalize their fears, sadness, anger, etc. and thereby work through difficult situations more safely. Providing some symbolic distance through play allows scary or overwhelming emotions to surface in a safe manner. This helps the child learn that he or she can in fact experience those feelings as well as experience being in true relationship with themselves and others without being “taken over” by strong emotions. For these reasons, children’s play is not interpreted to them. Further, only consistent themes are communicated to parents so they come to understand what’s happening with their child without compromising the safety and confidentiality of the therapeutic environment.
For any of the aforementioned to really occur in session, the child needs to feel connected to and trust his or her therapist. For this reason, the therapeutic relationship is the basis and foundation of play therapy. Children are offered a safe and nurturing space in which they are free to express whatever feelings or thoughts they might have. This occurs within boundaries that support the children’s well-being and without children needing to worry about whether they might offend or scare parents, other relatives or friends by this expression of emotion.
So, hopefully this sheds some light on the topic of play therapy. It’s most commonly used with children ages 3-12 since children of these ages express themselves and their experiences of their world by using play more than conversation. However, it can also be used very effectively with adolescents and adults, especially those who are creative or more action-oriented than verbal. With these clients, focus tends to shift away from dramatic play and more toward using games, sand tray or various forms of artwork.