What is Play Therapy?

One common question I get from parents who bring their children to therapy: “Why should I pay you a boatload of money to play Candyland with my child?! I can do that for free!” Good question. Following are some good reasons therapists use play therapy with young children, and the types of issues it can be used to treat.

PLAY THERAPY is therapy which uses play as a means to achieve therapeutic goals. It is a natural medium for a child’s self-expression because when a child is relaxed and happy, they will naturally be more inclined to share their thoughts. Play therapy can include games, art therapy, drama therapy, dress up, role play, puppets, building blocks, books, and much more.

When a child is exposed to talk therapy only, they can feel like a giant spot light is turned on them and they are under interrogation, which feels intimidating and invasive. However, use of age-appropriate games, dolls, and books can loosen up inhibitions, allowing the child to feel comfortable and safe, and much more likely to share their thoughts and feelings.

Play also encourages children to attend therapy sessions because they think of it as having fun. The child experiences play therapy as playing and talking to an adult they enjoy and trust. It gives them one more adult in their world that feels safe and comforting, which is always valuable. This bond with the therapist is called the therapeutic alliance, and without it, trust does not exist; without trust, few therapeutic gains will be made.

Play is also a way for the therapist to view how children tolerate frustration, especially whether they are able to win and lose equally well, whether they’re capable of waiting their turn, how they handle the stress of time-sensitive games, and how they use their imagination. For example, many children I’ve worked with begin play therapy wanting to win, always wanting to go first, and have a need to dominate the game; if therapy is successful, I often see a lightening of pressure in play, with the child delighting in letting me go first, seeing me do well in a game, and even “helping me out” if I’m bombing a game. These are all helpful clues that the therapeutic alliance is strong, and the child is developing compassion and empathy for others. What Kinds of Kids Benefit from Play Therapy?

Almost any child can benefit from play therapy, since the goals for children are to heighten self awareness, build self esteem, encourage sharing, encourage compassion, and encourage healthy socialization. In particular, play therapy is great for:

ABUSED CHILDREN often have more difficulty expressing their feelings because they experience feelings as unsafe due to their trust having been shattered by the trauma of abuse. Play can help these children relax and learn to trust again, which is key for therapy to be effective. Sometimes, use of role play or puppets can be a direct yet minimally invasive way of processing the abuse, with the child describing what happened and how they felt, but without the pressure of feeling interrogated. It can also allow them to make up their own happier ending, which can feel hopeful and empowering for the child.

FOSTER/ADOPTIVE CHILDREN can have a very difficult time bonding with family because they have had to change families at least once and are not sure why they should bother bonding again, or are worried that if they do bond deeply they’ll just be ripped away again, which they did not enjoy the first time. Play therapy can help them bond with the therapist, which can give them a template for bonding with their family, showing them that bonding doesn’t have to be scary, and that they can enjoy relationships which aren’t always permanent, in that they won’t be in therapy forever either, but they can still have happy memories of their time with the therapist.

Play therapy if fun for children, but it is also a powerful therapeutic told designed to help children regain happiness, security, and mental health.

(Adapted by Danielle Duran, MA LMFT from the work of Karen Booty, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist)


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