Using Play To Solve Problems: Play Therapy
When I tell people I use play therapy with children, they frequently ask how could playing games with a child possibly help? The following is a description of play therapy and how it can benefit children and their families that are struggling with emotional and or behavioral issues.
Before a child can walk or talk, he or she will play. This play is the natural language of children. A skilled play therapist understands how to use this natural form of a child's self expression to help him or her work through troubling issues and opens up opportunities to help young children heal. Young children don't have the sophisticated vocabulary of adults, or often even the self-awareness, to put their thoughts and feelings into words.
In all the years I've been in practice, I've never had a kindergartner tell me, "I'm depressed because the other children at school are picking on me." A more likely scenario would be a parent asking for help because their child is clingy and whining about going to school. He or she may throw temper tantrums or cry when it's time to get ready for school. Possibly the parents have received notes from concerned teachers about their child's behaviors. During a play therapy session, this may come out through the child hitting the bigger dolls with a hammer, building walls around a toy pig to keep it protected, or any other scenario that would express he or she was struggling with safety and fear issues. They then have the opportunity to explore, work-out, and try out healthier solutions in the safe and familiar activity of play.
Children will be children and are expected to behave inappropriately and sometimes foolishly. They need the guidance of the adults who love them to help them learn appropriate behaviors and self-expression. They will test the boundaries of what they can get away with as they explore and grow. A pattern of these concerning behaviors is when a parent should be concerned. This could indicate that he or she is "stuck" and not able to work through something troubling. Play therapy can help these children, who would otherwise not benefit from, or be able to utilize, traditional talk-based therapy.
Play therapy is not simply sitting around and playing games; It is a specific form of communication where the therapist uses play to create an effective child-friendly healing environment. A good child therapist understands it is the responsibility of the therapist to work at the child's level. Expecting a child to "come up" to their level and use words to explain what is going on inside them will automatically create a barrier. A play therapist can understand, interpret, and communicate back to a child in his or her natural language of play which makes the therapy very user friendly for young children.
In play, children interact with toys and other people as they enter new experiences. In treatment, they will be given the opportunity to try out and rehearse new, healthier skills to manage what they are dealing with in their lives. Your child can safely work through their issues and work to find creative solutions along with the therapist. Play is fun and helps keep a child motivated and engaged in the therapy session. A child looks forward to being an active participant.
A play therapist is, first and foremost, a trained mental health professional with at least a masters degree in a mental health related field. They also have advanced specialized training and experience in using play therapy techniques. While play therapy is no t exclusive to children and is sometimes used with adults too, it does offer greater opportunities for a child to grow an heal in the therapy office.
Article Written by Chantelle Grant, LCSW
A psychotherapist who has been working with and training professionals about children's mental health issues for over twenty years.