“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Mr. Fred Rogers
As adults, we often take play for granted. We can see it as a distraction or avoidance of doing difficult tasks and accomplishing goals. We seem to distinguish work and play by putting them into utterly different categories. However, as Mr. Rogers points out, there is no separation of the two in a child’s world. Introducing play into therapy invites a child to process and reflect on the challenges, hopes, and joys in that child’s life. Play Therapy is actually the exact opposite of distraction or avoidance of a situation or problem. Play in therapy may be one of the bravest and most vulnerable acts our children take.
An example of how impactful Play Therapy can be for a child:
Our son was 3 years old when our daughter was born. As parents and caregivers of multiple children can tell you, our daughter’s introduction was an adjustment for our son. At that time, our son responded to this transition with challenging behaviors, unreasonable requests, and lots of tears. It was an exhausting and overwhelming experience for the whole family. In those early days, during a moment of independent play, our son took his lego blocks and built three structures.
After he built the structures, I asked him to tell me about them, and he explained that he had built our family. I commented on the differences between them, and he explained that the figure in the middle (symmetrical and tall) was me, while to the left (wide and crowding the scene) was his Dad, and the other (narrow and wobbly) was himself. Noticing that there were only three figures, I pointed out that our family had four people, not three. At this point, our son replied, “I did not want to have another kid.”
Dr. Gary Landreth, one of the most well-known child therapists and researchers on Play Therapy, explains that “toys are like words by children, and play is their language” (Landreth, 2012, p. 12). In the story above about my son, he used lego blocks to share his thoughts and feelings about our family structure changes. Maybe an adult could have put into words their confusion, excitement, and fear. They could process these heavy feelings through conversations that include reflection and thought-provoking questions with another person. However, our son used toys (his words) to play out (communicate) what was going on inside his head and heart.
Children use play every day to:
- Relieve stress and tension
- Engage with their world, and
- Communicate with those around them.
Games and activities are applied in classrooms and extracurricular settings all the time to help children navigate life. Therefore, it only makes sense that play would be a crucial component found in child counseling rooms. While many adults can engage in talk therapy and work through their thoughts, feelings, and experiences through verbal communication, children are still developing those skills.
Play Therapy, therefore, helps children:
- Learn about emotions
- How to communicate feelings, and
- How to cope when emotions become overwhelming.
While Play Therapy is an approach best suited for children between the ages of 3 and 12, using play in therapy sessions can be beneficial and useful for all ages. It allows children, teens, and adults to be creative and free from normal modes of communication in the process of therapeutic growth. And since play is universal, it allows us to tap into our shared humanity and connect us across cultural differences.
Types of Play
Play in therapy can, at times, be non-directive, where an individual is allowed the freedom to use the toys and items in a session as they see fit within the appropriate limits set by the therapist. This type of play will enable individuals to problem-solve and express themselves using their innate abilities and interests. Non-directive play is much like the above lego example with my son. Play can also be directive, where the therapist chooses games or activities that they feel will best support the child’s therapeutic growth. While either approach is effective, each requires a nurturing, non-judgmental, and safe relationship with their therapist.
I am continually inspired by the growth and therapeutic developments I witness in my younger clients. I have seen children practice vulnerability, gain insight, and develop coping skills through the simple act of play. I can also happily report that over time, and with much more lego building, my son accepted his baby sister. Today, they love each other deeply, and now have one another to play with!
While child therapists may use Play Therapy techniques, to officially call oneself a Registered Play Therapist (RPT), you must complete years of educational training and supervision to obtain a certification through the American Play Therapy Association. I am currently working towards certification and hope to have it in 2021.
I provide both non-directive and directive play in sessions, providing access to toys, games, and supplies for my clients. If you would like a free 15-minute consultation, please – click here.