What Is Play Therapy?
Therapy techniques for children are adaptations of adult therapy that are modified and often include play. The act of playing is used to help children to better communicate since they cannot free associate their feelings or process their cognitive distortions verbally like adults can. The therapist’s job in these sessions is to modify how they would traditionally interpret the adult’s words into interpreting the child’s behavior and help the child to work through potential issues in a safe and judgement free environment. Play therapy has a lot of research behind it and there are many different approaches even within play therapy.
There Are Different Models of Play Therapy?
Incorporating Play: There are some Counseling approaches that incorporate play into talk therapy to facilitate connection and engagement with your child. For example, your child’s therapist might engage your child in coloring or a game of monopoly while discussing your family dynamics or school experiences.
Directive Play: There are Directive play therapy approaches which are targeted by the therapist to address specific concerns. For example, therapists might engage a child in games that require gross and fine motor control as well as patience in order to address your child’s impulse control challenges.
Nondirective Play: There are Nondirective play therapy approaches which generally focus on healing through the relationship and providing an unconditionally positive environment for kids to engage. For example, your child may choose to play how they wish and the therapist observes and interacts in ways decided by your child without challenging or suggesting different ways of engaging.
Parent Play: There are also many models that incorporate parents into the process which is also great for working through child attachment challenges as well as making faster progress on their treatment goals. While the parent doesn’t have to be involved in play therapy sessions, parent involvement is a huge factor in child success. You child’s therapist can provide parent coaching if needed, and give you tips to increase the effectiveness of the work being done in session.
Is Playing Necessary for Successful Child Therapy?
The play in children’s therapy is an essential tool that allows for numerous avenues to be explored throughout sessions. Play is critical in developing the therapeutic relationship and allowing your child to feel comfortable. Play can even build self-esteem. Play allows for children to use their curiosity, explore and be spontaneous. In play, children can be creative, and it facilitates learning.
Play allows children to work through problems. Through pretending, children can act out different challenges that they haven’t come to terms with or are uncomfortable dealing with in the “real world.” Sometimes play incorporates real life themes and representations of problems our children are trying to work through. Trial and error is used in various scenarios that are facilitated by the therapist, but acted out by the child so that they are able to alter the scenario and experiment with solutions in a safe setting.
Sometimes play therapy doesn’t seem to directly address the presenting problems, but your child can still work through issues in this way. Even when adults can’t observe common threads with current issues, our kids can still be working things out. Additionally, therapists can use targeted activities and directive approaches to explore problems in a covert way that feels less threatening to the child.
Play is a safe way for kids to process their feelings. This allows for the child to feel as if they are more in control of their environment and can act freely without fear or judgement from those around them.
Why Can’t I Do This Therapy on My Own?
It may seem like having a therapist work through play therapy with your child is unnecessary; however, the therapist is an important tool for your child’s success. Having someone who your child does not encounter every day, helps to withdraw any bias that may be present when working with your child on your own. Children are often motivated to please their parents even in subtle ways such as through play. When your child is playing out a traumatic scene, for example, and you respond with concern or well-meaning redirection, your child may internalize that they shouldn’t play that theme because it upsets mom or dad.
Play therapists are trained in how to engage with your child and help them to open up. While initial sessions may seem as though little is happening, these sessions are where the therapist gets a feel for how your child interacts with their environment, potential areas for further exploration, observable behaviors, and they can assess whether the child’s interactions are developmentally appropriate or signify areas of concern. The therapeutic relationship is also one of the strongest factors in your child’s success in therapy, so a lot of play will encourage developing this as well. As the child becomes more comfortable with their environment and gets to know the therapist, they will open up more and the relationship will allow more growth and healing.
In the end, full communication between you, your child, and the therapist will allow for the treatment of your child to be beneficial and successful. If you have questions or concerns, talk to the therapist. It’s alright to ask the therapist about their approach and how they plan to work with your child. Progress can take time and can seem slower with children and it’s important to recognize this. Talking with your child’s therapist can help you understand the purpose and direction of their treatment.
August 2020, Amelia Forsmo, Administrative Volunteer
Frankel, J.B. (1998.) “The Play’s the Thing: How the Essential Processes of Therapy Are Seen Most Clearly in Child Therapy” Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 8(1):149-182.
Jenny Beall, MA, LPCC, Threads of Hope Counseling.