What Is Play Therapy And Is It Right For Your Child?
There is a common uncertainty among parents as to what constitutes play therapy and when this is the right step for their child or family.
Play is one of the most important ways we have of communicating without words.
To understand play therapy it is essential to really understand the richness of play. Play is one of the most important ways we have of communicating without words. The blocks or dolls, paintbrushes, poetry, or humor are the materials used but the actual play is the communication that occurs through the use of these materials. In other words, play serves as a language through which it can feel safer to communicate when verbal communication is either not available or feels too threatening.
What to expect will happen in a play therapy session?
Depending on the age of the child, a psychologist will likely meet with you first as the parent seeking help for your child and will get a history of your child’s development as well as a history of the presenting issue that may bring you to seek services.
Once the psychologist meets with your child and play therapy is used as the tool for treatment- the therapist will often sit on the floor, just as you would, and engage your child in play- commonly following the child’s lead, using the variety of materials that may exist in the play space.
Because of this any areas of concern could be amenable to play therapy from issues in the family that you as a parent identify to significant events, changes or losses that occur in the child’s environment or to the child.
A unique difference that does exist in this play with a therapist is how the playing is used. Psychologists trained in play therapy have unique and specialized experience helping infants, toddlers and young children make sense of things that they may be trying to sort through or understand; they look for patterns in play and use play to help children notice and learn about their emotions, maybe help them accept feelings that seem threatening and help them feel better about situations (i.e., separation from mom or dad; a new sibling etc.). They do this THROUGH the play; sometimes in communicating verbally what they observe in play and other times playing out the reality that the child is trying to work through.
What situations or areas of difficulty are right for play therapy?
Play therapy is a broad and far-reaching tool and is used from infancy through to adulthood as a way or means of communication. Because of this any areas of concern could be amenable to play therapy from issues in the family that you as a parent identify (new sibling, divorce, conflict in the home, new school, hometown etc.) to significant events, changes or losses that occur in the child’s environment or to the child (bullying, death or loss of loved one, friendship conflicts, school stress or learning disability, ADHD). Finally your child may show you in their behavior that they are looking for a way to express themselves (i.e. increased tantrums, acting out at school, tearful etc.) and/or if older they may directly ask you for help (i.e. for depression, anxiety, traumas etc.). In any situation that you as the parent- the expert- are concerned about your child’s well being, play therapy can help.
A word on REPITITION
Toddlers, and young children thrive on routine, rituals and consistency.
A large part of play therapy may be finding the patterns or themes in play. Toddlers, and young children thrive on routine, rituals and consistency. Many parents are familiar with the child asking to read the same book every night or insisting on wearing something even if it’s dirty again and again. Repetition helps children do two things: 1) make things predictable and therefore safe and reassuring and, 2) by repeating things that are familiar and were done with familiar people or loved ones, they can feel they are keeping these loved ones close by. In play therapy then, the repetitive themes help make the space safe, and predictable as well as may help keep the child feel connected to the therapist. Also repetition in therapy allows for a third thing to be at work- it helps the child make sense of things and gain understanding (and/or healthy control) over things they are trying to understand
In summary, with children, play is THE primary method of communication and for younger children play is more comfortable (and possible) then words.
The take home message….
In summary, with children, play is THE primary method of communication and for younger children play is more comfortable (and possible) then words. Play allows children even those with limited verbal ability to express themselves; come to know, understand and cope with feelings; and make sense of their realities even aspects that might be frightening or overwhelming.
Tanya works in private practice offering assessment, psychotherapy and consulting services. She also works at Boomerang Health, powered by Sick Kids where she is involved in psychotherapy for youth and families.