Many parents and people who care for children often ask me what Play Therapy is all about, and if I think that Play Therapy could help their children. Usually, these grown ups have some concerns about a child’s behavior or the child’s ways of relating to others. Maybe grown ups have tried everything they can think of to help the child overcome some troubling behaviors, but the solutions haven’t managed to “stick”.
A Child Centered Play Therapist uses creative media and activities to help open up the child’s natural ability to solve problems. In a well-designed, safe play room, your child will be able to choose different forms of playing that typically include art, music, dance, drama, sand, water, and pretend play. The primary philosophy behind using creative play to help children solve their own problems incorporates these ideas:
Play is a child’s most natural and spontaneous form of self expression.
Children use play to learn about the world they live in, try new things, and to explore their experiences.
Children often play about things they know or experiences they have had.
It is ideal for children to use the safety of imaginary play to explore difficult life experiences they have had.
What children try out in their play (i.e. ideas, social skills, and new solutions to old problems) generalizes to other settings. Kids transfer new ways of thinking from the play room to real life!
I’d like to give you a better idea of exactly what your child would be working on in a typical Play Therapy session, with this short example. Keep in mind, this is not an actual case, but more a general idea of the type of work children do in Play Therapy. You’ll see some of the caring, focusing, and reflecting skills a Play Therapist uses to tune in to the child’s ideas and feelings during a play session. This helps move the child along to look at possible choices and choose better solutions in the play (and therefore, in real life, too).
Jason is a 9 year old boy. He was referred for Play Therapy by his school, after his teacher noticed he was more aggressive than usual, refusing to complete his work, sullen and moody in the classroom, and fighting with his peers more often. After an incident where Jason got angry and broke a window, he shouted, “I hate this school! If I died nobody would even care!” Jason’s parents recently divorced and his mother moved to another town for her new job. Jason now lives with his dad during the week and only sees his mother on weekends, which is a big change for him. Jason says he misses his mom a lot.
The Early Days: Jason’s 5th Play Therapy Session
Jason: Do you know where these people are going? They are going on a plane trip. (Loads people onto plane).
Therapist: They are getting on the plane for their trip.
Jason: They’re gonna fly real fast. They better wear their seatbelts or else. You know what? If they don’t wear their seatbelts they’re not allowed to go. They’ll have to stay home.
Therapist: They have to do what they’re supposed to or they won’t get to go.
Jason: (Putting a baby doll on the plane). Baby’s going too but he’s crying because there’s no seatbelt for him. (Tries to put a mother figure with the baby). Mom is too big, she doesn’t fit. She can’t go on the plane.
Therapist: Baby has to go without mom.
Jason: (Flies the plane around and lands near the dollhouse). They’re back. Here’s the dad. (Holds up doll father). The dad is going to buy a new truck. They need to move because their house is falling down.
Therapist: The house is too shaky so they are going to move.
Jason: I mean they might. They might move.
Therapist: They are thinking about moving but aren’t sure yet.
Early on, the Play Therapist is paying close attention to the story Jason is telling about going on a trip, and using a narrative style to clarify the meaning of Jason’s story. The Play Therapist might be wondering if Jason is having feelings about travelling between two homes and missing having more contact with his mother. He may be thinking about how stable his home life will be with all the changes. Like many children Jason’s age, he might be wondering if the divorce was his fault, or if he had to stay behind because he wasn’t good enough (when mom left)? The Play Therapist allows Jason to tell the story, with the understanding that children will look for ways to resolve the difficulties they are exploring in their play. Over the next few sessions, Jason repeatedly plays out the same story and thinks about it in different ways, coming up with creative new solutions he may be too stressed to think of in real life.
As the Play Progresses: Jason’s 15th Play Therapy Session
Jason: Crash! There’s a big hole in the wall where the plane just crashed into the house. The dad is going to fix it. He’s got new bricks.
Therapist: There’s a hole in this house that needs fixing.
Jason: (Picks up a little boy doll, who carries over some bricks).
Therapist: The little boy can help.
Jason: Oof! The bricks are so heavy. (Boy is struggling with the bricks).
Therapist: It’s hard work filling up holes. It’s a lot to carry!
Jason: It’s his son.
Therapist: Father and son are working together.
Jason: (Plays on his own, building a new wall for the house with Lego bricks, humming a tune).
Therapist: That house is looking more solid now.
Jason: Yeah but they can’t reach the top, the ones that go up there. It’s too high.
Therapist: They’re worried they won’t be able to finish the job.
Jason: (Thinking). I know! (Brings in a helicopter to lower bricks on top of the wall).
Therapist: You found a way!
Jason: Yeah (Smiling).
We can see here that Jason has been using his Play Therapy sessions to make new connections about what’s going on in his life. The hole that was left by his parents’ divorce can be repaired, when Jason decides that he can rely on his dad and he can pitch in, too. Jason seems more hopeful and capable, as if to say, “Even though I was destroyed when the divorce happened, I’ll find a way to make it.” We would expect that with this stronger belief in himself, Jason would transfer his new problem-solving ability to the school setting, improving his confidence there as well.
If you are taking care of a child who has had a tough time with changes happening in life, you may consider talking to a Play Therapist who can help. For questions about Play Therapy and Play Therapy resources in your area, contact Georgie Wisen-Vincent, LMFT, RPT at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I was a kid, playing was almost like a full time job. My sister and I were a lot of times left to our own devices to entertain ourselves after school and on weekends. Always after homework was done and dusted, of course! We girls were usually encouraged to “go out and play” to give Mom and Dad enough time to get the important household stuff done. Little did our parents know, their girls were travelling to uncharted lands and inventing fantastic stories all in the comfort of our own backyard.
If you’re a parent who has ever sneaked a peek at your children playing pretend, you might be interested to see the fantastic places they go when they play. Mom was none too pleased when she saw two little girls dragging her good broom and mop through the dirt, but what she didn’t notice were two beautiful princesses riding horses that had wings and could actually fly. Did you know that kids don’t have a concept of time when they play pretend? We could disappear for hours in the world of the imagination.
Grown ups tend to lose that sense of magic. We get older, we have to pay bills, and we forget what it was like to be the boss of our own made up stories. That’s exactly the problem I ran into when I started training to become a Play Therapist.
What is a Play Therapist?
A Play Therapist is someone who is trained to help children resolve their problems using creative methods like play, art, drama, music, and dance. Play Therapists understand that play comes naturally to children and that children express themselves most readily in their playing.
Did you ever notice that once children reach a certain age, they start to play pretend, without anyone ever teaching them how to do it? Sure, they need grown ups to teach them their colors and numbers and letters, but for most children, playing pretend comes automatically. It’s pre-programmed. Why? Because children’s brains help them learn about the world through playing. Kids don’t learn the same way adults do. They must pretend to comprehend.
I didn’t know this when I set out to work as a children’s therapist. I thought helping kids overcome their problems will be a piece of cake. We’ll just have a nice little chat about feelings and play a board game or two, and things will get better.
Some Children Can’t Talk It Out
Starting out as a behavior therapist, it was my job to talk to children who were separated from their families and placed in foster care, or adopted into new families, or their feelings and behaviors were so extreme, they couldn’t live with a family and were placed in group homes, hospitals, or juvenile hall. Most of these children had been through serious abuse, major losses, and traumatic life events. Many of them experienced things that even most adults I know would find it difficult to talk about. And quite often these really tough kids experienced these things when they were too young to understand. Too young to have the words to describe what they had been through.
These kids would not have a nice little chat about feelings, and play a board game or two, and get better. They couldn’t “talk it out”. They didn’t respond to behavior charts and stickers. These children were still living in a state of crisis. Their adoptive and foster families had tried everything they could think of, and they didn’t know what else to do. I was sent in to help, but what was I going to do for the kids who couldn’t talk about their problems?
Play Helps Children Heal
What I realized was that we need to find a way to bypass language in order to help children who do not have words to heal. Play therapy has been around for a long time as an option for helping children heal their emotions in a non-verbal way. What did all of the children I was working with have in common? They were all able to play in some form or another.
Play Therapists are able to do a lot more than bring out the board games. They are specially trained people who understand how to communicate with children through the medium of creativity. In a typical play therapy session, a Play Therapist invites the child into a uniquely designed play area, where toys, art materials, puppets, and costumes are available so that the child can choose how they would like to play. Play Therapists remember what it was like to be a child, when it was easy to create imaginary worlds and stories. Children use their play therapy time to play pretend, creating imaginary worlds where they can re-live and re-explore aspects of their lives that are too scary or painful to talk about. When they are pretending, children can conquer their fears, rescue someone in distress, and be the hero of their own stories. Children can go back in time and write their own happy endings, and along the way, they build confidence and skills to get along better in life.
If you are taking care of a child who has had a tough time with changes happening in life, you may consider talking to a Play Therapist who can help. For questions about Play Therapy and Play Therapy resources in your area, contact Georgie Wisen-Vincent at email@example.com.