What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy uses play as a way to relate and teach children. It allows children to describe and express thoughts and feelings through familiar action. When adults think of counseling, they think about a couch and two people in a room talking things out. This makes sense because talk is how adults plan, problem-solve and work through their concerns. Kids and even teens on the other hand, use play to process thoughts and feelings. It’s hard to communicate when you can’t say things in the way you normally do or in a way that feels safe.
Absolutely! All therapy starts by creating a positive, accepting client-therapist relationship. Adults connect by listening and talking with each other, but kids and teens connect by doing things together. Play serves as a bridge; a way to connect with kids and understand how they see the world in a way that’s completely natural to them.
Many therapists use art and play when working with kids. Most use it to as a supplement to talk therapy rather than really using the play as therapy. Play therapy, particularly child-centered play starts by genuinely accepting the child. The focus is on following and allowing the child or teen to express themselves with and through play. The therapist reflects, mirrors, tracks and gently sets limits to facilitate the child’s or teen’s processing and learning. In order to do this effectively, play therapists such as myself have a significant amount of specific training in play therapy methods (child-centered play, directed play, sand tray play, art, filial play therapy, family play therapy, neuroscience of play) and learn to use them in a strategic and structured way to meet the needs of the clients.
My kid is very articulate and talks about his/ her feelings all the time so why should I consider play therapy?
Sometimes children use words and other times they use play or art to understand, communicate and express thoughts and feelings. Bright, articulate kids are often aware that adults feel that things are ok if kids talk about them. Smart kids learn what works so they will talk about things in ways that satisfy their parents without having a way to really figure things out emotionally. Words are specific and literal. They mean different things to different people and it can be hard or uncomfortable to always say what you truly mean. Even adults sometimes have difficulty communicating how they feel through words. Play on the other hand is flexible and non-literal. It connects with and opens up our creativity which in turn engages the brain’s learning and retention processes.
Kids learn and process information differently from adults because their brains are still growing. The human brain develops physically, socially, intellectually (cognitively) and emotionally during the first 25 years of life. During this time we learn to do a number of things: figure things out, use logic and reasoning, problem-solve, make decisions, manage and cope with uncomfortable feelings and learn social skills. Learning comes in many forms. When kids toss a ball back and forth, play cards or a board game, dress up or pretend to cook or play with dolls or trucks they are developing gross and fine motor skills. They are learning to explore feelings, social roles and rules They gain self-discipline and self-confidence. Play therapy works by building on a child’s normal communicative and learning processes to help them accept and express thoughts and feelings in constructive ways and encourages creativity as a way to develop stronger problem-solving skills. In addition, playroom activities (often referred to as “special play time”) and art activities are largely selected and initiated by the child or teen which supports the development of healthy decision-making skills. All these things increase a child’s or teen’s sense of mastery, self-esteem and self-confidence.
How play therapy works and why it works are very closely related. Play therapy works because it builds on the way kids normally learn. Play also creates an easy connection between the child and therapist. It reduces stress. It allows children to relax and creates a space where kids can feel safe while testing out different feelings like anger, frustration, fear or excitement. Finally play is self-rewarding so it reinforces learning.
Play therapy starts with connection and the development of a warm, friendly relationship with your child. I focus on how your child sees the world as this helps me understand what’s under the behaviors that are causing you and/or your child concern. As trust and connection develop and your child or teen feels safe, they will more readily and easily communicate intimate feelings and thoughts. I also use specific techniques as well as my observations to help me understand how children and teens experience their worlds, how they communicate and how they react to events and other people. I believe that more aware we become of our feelings and the kinds of thoughts or physical sensations they create, the more able we are to change. Nothing changes without awareness.
While parent-child play is important, regular play differs from therapeutic play. Play therapy, as used by a trained play therapist has a purpose and goals. The therapist knows how to use play and recognizes how play helps communicate and produce change. Play therapy allows children to experiment with different responses and learn from them in a way that supports the development of effective problem-solving and communication skills.