Play therapy is a psycho-therapeutic approach used to help children ages 3 to 12 explore their lives and freely express thoughts and emotions through play. Therapeutic play normally takes place in a safe, comfortable playroom, where very few rules or limits are imposed on the child to allow the therapist to observe the child’s choices, decisions, themes and style of play.
The child is likely to already be spending many hours playing. However, if your child is exhibiting behavioral problems, difficulty making friends, signs of anxiety, low mood or trouble coping with illness or other traumatic experience, then play therapy could be the most important place you take your child.
When It’s Used
The goal is to help children learn to express themselves in healthier ways, become more respectful and empathetic, and discover new and more positive ways to solve problems.
Therapeutic play helps children with social or emotional deficits learn to communicate better, change their behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and relate to others in positive ways. Play therapy can help children with academic and social problems, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders as well as those with attention deficit disorders or who are on the autism spectrum.
What to Expect
After conducting an initial interview with the parent, and often with the child in a separate interview, the therapist can make an assessment prior to beginning treatment. An assessment allows the therapist to decide the best treatment approach for the child. In the playroom, the child is encouraged to play with very specific types of toys that encourage self-expression and facilitate the learning of positive behaviors. Play therapy usually occurs in weekly sessions for an average of 20 sessions lasting 30 to 50 minutes each.
How It Works
Play therapy responds to the unique developmental needs of young children, who often express themselves better through play activities than through verbal communication. The therapist uses play and other creative activities to communicate with the child and observe how the child uses these activities to express thoughts and feelings that are not expressed in words.
Very often when seeking play therapy many children don’t have the communication skills to express what they are truly feeling. However, play therapy gives the child the platform to express their thoughts and feelings through the medium of play. In this regard, play therapists are specially trained to understand, interpret, and respond to children’s play communications and to increase parents’ abilities to “talk” to their children through play in-between sessions and beyond therapy.
Once communication is established and interpreted through play the child begins to develop skills that allow them to manage and regulate their own behaviors. In the play therapy sessions, the child will be given opportunities to test limits in a safe environment, allowing them to increase their awareness of the consequences of their actions. For example, the child may choose to break a toy or a piece of craft, followed by a developing understanding that once its broken or destroyed that it does not return.
From a child’s perception they spend most of their day being told what to do by others. Of course, this is required as they learn about boundaries, safety and moral values. However, play therapy encourages a creative independence in a safe environment that allows the child to learn, think and decide for themselves. The child becomes the leader and is empowered by the ability to make choices and discover the positive and negative consequences of these decisions. This non-judgmental environment provides a platform for the child to creatively express their emotions.
Rapport is built between the child and the therapist; trusting relationships are a theme throughout therapy as the child has the opportunity to test out different aspects of social interactions with the therapist without fear of permanently damaging the relationship. Toys in play therapy are also specially selected to allow your child to explore different social roles, such as nurturing baby dolls or dressing up as a police officer. Play therapy will help your child to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and this development of skills transfers across to relationships with family and friends.
Of course the expectation is that the therapist and the child are the only two important factors throughout play therapy. However, the parents and the role of additional family members play are an essential part in the child’s development and discovery. Family members may not be in the room during every session; however their role throughout the course of therapy is crucial. The relationship you have with the therapist, the child, the environment, the commitment to attend and so forth provides the nucleus to playing comfortably, communicating and developing.Play therapy can reduce the understandable distress felt by parents and family members, this can free up additional opportunities for family development and quality time spent with your child.