Over the past three years while practicing Play Therapy with children and adolescents, many people, including parents, have asked me, how is Play Therapy beneficial? Can Play Therapy really work for my child? Why is play considered therapy? There are many answers to these questions. My first response is that people are unique and different therapy styles work for different people. Play Therapy is the most common form of therapy I have facilitated in order to meet my clients’ therapeutic goals. In Play Therapy, children can learn coping skills, self-soothing, communication skills, socialization skills, emotion regulation, and mindfulness.
The particular form of Play Therapy I facilitate most often is Client-Centered Play Therapy, which means that the client, no matter what age, directs the therapy session in whatever way they feel is right for them. I provide an environment which allows the child to partake in Play Therapy, safely (physically and emotionally). I provide an attitude of understanding, non-judgment, and transparency. These three factors allow for the therapeutic relationship to grow and for the client to progress in a variety of areas, including self-actualizing, emotional awareness, and insight. The factors also help to build trust between the therapist and client.
Play Therapy is beneficial because it can help children express themselves using creativity and non-traditional forms of communication. This is important because children may not have the verbal language to say in words what they are thinking and how they are feeling. Drawing pictures, building with blocks, and using figures and puppets can help children to be more expressive. Often times, children who have experienced trauma or other difficult psychological experiences need additional outlets other than directly confronting issues by talking about them. Play Therapy can also give children tools to use when they run out of ways to self-soothe. For example, a child who resorts to temper tantrums or self-harming behaviors, using techniques learned in Play Therapy can dramatically change the child’s outlook toward using healthy coping skills.
Play Therapy can work for any child who is willing to participate. During the beginning phases of Play Therapy, I typically experience a rapport building period where children play games and draw pictures in a way that tests the emotional safety of the therapeutic environment. Little needs to be said about the time it can take a child to open up to an unknown adult to reveal their most private thoughts and feelings about difficult topics. During early CCPT sessions, it is most important that I play with the child in a way that conveys understanding, non-judgement, and transparency to build trust. It is a common occurrence that after several sessions, a parent will report an incident of “bad behavior” at home or in school, which is much more willingly discussed between therapist and child after engaging in Play Therapy sessions. Play Therapy can help a child feel valued and respected by the therapist, which can allow the child to discuss fragile details and admit vulnerability.
Play can be therapeutic for children because it lets them be themselves. Due to the expressed attitude of non-judgment and understanding by the therapist, children are more likely to try different activities in a psychologically safe environment, like drawing a person with 5 arms, expressing their wish to be able to do more things at once. Play Therapy can expose a child to different topics and stimuli to which they may not have been exposed before. For example, many children use clay, paint, and puppets for the first time in Play Therapy sessions. Client-Centered Play Therapy places a strong value on allowing children to work things out on their own, to ask for help when they feel they need it, and to understand their strengths and areas for growth. Children are often highly structured at home, in school, in extracurricular activities. Play Therapy can be an experience where children can be less structured, make their own decisions, learn about the world through their own lens, and understand who they are and what they can do if given the opportunity.