The concept of incorporating play into therapy sessions has been around since the early days of Sigmund Freud. Although play therapy is certainly not a ‘new’ concept, its presence has grown remarkably within the last thirty years.
In 1982, the Association for Play Therapy (APT) was established. Today, play therapy is becoming a tool of choice among providers who work with young children, teens, and even adults. Still though, there are many myths and misconceptions about play therapy. In this blog, we will break them down and go over what it actually is and why it works.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is an approach to counseling children that uses toys, art supplies, and games to communicate using their ‘language’ — the language of play (Kottman, 2011, p.4). It is hard for children to use words to tell people how they are thinking and feeling. They tend to lack the skills needed to truly benefit from a ‘talk therapy’ session (Kottman, 2011, p.4).
In a session, children naturally gravitate towards play as a comfortable way to communicate. The play itself can be a natural way for your child’s therapist to establish rapport and strengthen the therapeutic relationship.
Play can help children reveal feelings that they have not been able to verbalize. This often feels safer and less intrusive to the child. Play can also help children to constructively act out feelings of anxiety, frustration, tension or anger. At the same time it can teach social skills and provide an environment where children can test limits, gain insight about their own behavior and motivation, explore alternatives and learn about consequences (Thompson & Henderson, 2006).
“What do you do in session, just play?”
As a therapist who regularly uses play therapy, I often hear parents say things like, “What do you do in there, just play?” To the untrained eye, that may be exactly what play therapy looks like. However, it is much more complex and involved than what it looks like.
Through play, a therapist can begin to understand who your child is. They will look for patterns, themes and how the child sees the world through play. This can all be can be very helpful in figuring out how to best help your child.
Some common, basic techniques I like to use in the play room include:
- Tracking. Describing in a literal, non-interpretive way what is happening in the playroom by describing either what the child is doing or what the play objects are doing. (Kottman 2011)
- Restating content. Paraphrasing what the child has just said.
- Reflecting feelings. Making guesses about the children’s feelings in the process of play.
- Metacommunication. Communicating about the communication.
These basic skills serve as a pathway that allows the therapist to build trust with the child before moving onto challenging the child’s beliefs or behaviors to create change.
“Therapy shouldn’t be fun.”
Something else that I hear quite often from parents is, “Therapy shouldn’t be fun. They should be coming in to work, not to play.” Look, I get it. When most people think of ‘traditional’ therapy, they think of coming in, laying on a couch, and spilling their soul to someone with glasses, a tweed jacket and a notepad.
Therapy shouldn’t be ‘fun and games,’ it should be work! But that’s the beauty of play therapy — it can be fun, rewarding AND work. The benefits are endless. Some of the more common benefits include increased self-expression, improved self-esteem and self-worth, self-control, mastering fears, relationship enhancement, increased empathy, creative problem-solving and attachment formation (Kottman, 2011, p.4). Most kiddos aren’t going to be invested in the therapy process if it isn’t somewhat fun, hence play therapy.
According to Gary Landreth (2002), toys and materials used in play therapy should help encourage emotional and creative expression. The toys can engage children and speak to their interests, in addition to being able to provide mastery experiences where children can experience success.
“Can’t I just play with them at home?”
As stated earlier, play therapy is much more than just simply playing with your child. However, parent collaboration and participation is vital to a child’s success. I strive to incorporate parents into sessions as much as I can throughout the therapy process.
Parents and caregivers are essential to transferring the skills the child is learning in therapy into the home environment, to eventually be able to phase therapy out of the child’s life. Everyone is part of the team helping a child on their path to wellness. Let’s work and play together to make goals a reality.
For more information, please visit:
Kottman, T. (2011). Play therapy: basics and beyond. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Association for Play Therapy. (2016). Retrieved April, 2017, from http://www.a4pt.org/