For children, the answer is a resounding, “yes!” Children’s natural inclination towards play makes play therapy the preferred method of psychotherapy for children struggling with issues such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiance, attention deficit disorder, social problems, trauma, divorce, and grief, to name a few.
If you are concerned about your child’s behavior at home or at school, play therapy can help.
In play therapy, children are able to work through their social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties with the assistance of a trained play therapist through the medium of play. Children up to age 12 typically express their feelings more easily through play than directly through words. Play therapy can provide a non-threatening way for them to express their thoughts and feelings about issues with which they are struggling. Play therapy can also help children and their parents better understand the nature of what they are going through. Furthermore, play therapy can help children learn to solve problems, learn more effective coping methods, and change problematic behaviors.
Play therapy creates a safe therapeutic relationship and atmosphere in which children can discover their own “voice”, experience emotional release, and disclose issues of concern to them. Play therapists are trained to provide an environment of acceptance, empathy, and understanding in the play therapy session. The toys in the play therapy room are carefully selected to facilitate the child’s emotional and creative expression. Some typical play therapy materials include a dollhouse with a doll family, puppets, clay, drawing/painting materials, other art materials, blocks, Legos, toy cars, balls, therapeutic games (i.e., The Ungame), and books. Children are most commonly granted confidentiality in their play therapy sessions unless the therapist suspects a danger to themselves or others. Still, ideally, the play therapist maintains an open, regular communication with the child’s parents to assess the child’s progress, discuss the therapy process in terms of general themes, and collaboratively develop plans to best support the child’s needs at home and at school.
Although strong rapport and a safe therapeutic environment characterize all play therapy, there are many different types of play therapy. In child-centered play therapy, the child directs the play therapy process, with the therapist coming from a place of deep respect for the child’s intrinsic drive towards health, growth, and self-realization. The child-centered play therapist believes in the child’s ability to solve his/her own problems when given thee opportunity to do so. Child-centered play therapy aims to provide the optimal conditions for this growth to take place. Within the child-centered play therapy session, the child chooses the play activities and materials. The therapist is adeptly tuned in to the feelings the child expresses and reflects these feelings back to the child to promote the awareness and insight that the child needs to direct his own path towards his best self.
Other times in play therapy, the therapist might take a more directive approach to help a child work through a problem, acquire understanding and skills, or change their behavior. In cognitive behavioral play therapy, children are taught to change their feelings and behaviors by changing their thoughts and perceptions. This process is exemplified in the children’s story, The Little Engine that Could. Aren’t we all better off when we “think we can!”? Accordingly, books are frequently used in cognitive behavioral play therapy to help children change dysfunctional thought patterns and teach skills. Other commonly used techniques in cognitive behavioral play therapy include modeling and rehearsing adaptive thoughts and behaviors, role playing various scenarios, and helping the child generate and test alternative explanations to situations in his/her life. All of these interventions are designed to help the child “become the boss” of his/her problems.
Could your child benefit from play therapy? Have you considered seeking professional help for your child, but were not sure where to start? If you have concerns about your child socially, emotionally, or behaviorally, play therapy may be the recommended approach to help your child.
Carolyn Dimson PhD., LPC,BCB, ia a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver, an M.S. in Counseling Psychology from California State University, Hayward, and a B.A. in Psychology from Cornell University. Dr. Dimson is also Board Certified in Biofeedback by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance as well as a Board Certified Professional Counselor by the American Psychotherapy Association.