Top 5 Reasons Why Play Therapy is More than ‘Just Child’s Play’
Sometimes parents or professionals who are unfamiliar with Play Therapy wonder how therapy that consists of play can actively address child behavior problems, strong emotions, trauma, and relationship issues that children and their families enter therapy to address. After all, children play with toys most places they go, and yet the problems persist. Today I’d like to shine a light on how Play Therapy differs from general child’s play to provide effective therapeutic results for children and their families.
1. Child Therapy using Play Therapy targets specific therapeutic goals and provides regular progress reports
At least after every fourth session, we have a parent only session to review changes in behaviors, emotions, activity level, and relational interactions that parents and others are reporting. Measuring on a scale of 1-10, how much change has there been? What has improved and how? Has anything gotten worse or showed no change? What have they noticed that contributes to the problems or improves them? We review the goals of the child’s therapy and progress both in and out of the therapy room towards reaching those goals. Using the insights gained from the child’s play therapy sessions, we make plans for addressing problems systemically including family therapy, parenting sessions, sibling sessions, meetings with teachers, school staff, or church leaders as needed to achieve lasting results that carry beyond the course of therapy. We also work with medical professionals and other helping professionals to coordinate care most effectively. We aren’t ‘just playing’ even though it often feels that way to the child.
2. Child Therapy using Play Therapy involves a professional who understands how children communicate feelings, needs, desires, and fears through play
Those trained in play therapy have extensive training to know how to properly identify the clinical issues that a child communicates in play. To become a Registered Play Therapist (RPT) a Child Therapist needs at least 150 hours of Play Therapy Training, 500 hours of Play Therapy experience, and 50 hours of Play Therapy Supervision by an experienced clinician, in addition to the state licensure requirements we all must hold as mental health professionals. As Play Therapists, we use this extensive training to properly identify and reflect the child’s feelings, needs, desires, and fears as the child communicates those to us physically in play. This is very similar to how an adult’s therapist would observe and reflect these same things as an adult verbally discusses his or her problems. The outcome is the same: a feeling that someone understands my problems and accepts me for who I am despite those problems. That therapeutic relationship provides the safety to try something new, deal with hurt and challenges, and find a new path forward that produces the change which parents notice outside of the therapy room.
3. Child Therapy using Play Therapy provides pictures or metaphors of the child’s perspective to help parents find more effective ways to get the change they seek.
When children use toys as their words, metaphors and pictures of the child’s experience begin to emerge. For example, if she chooses a small kitten to play her mother, a turtle who can hide in his shell for herself, and a dinosaur whose face flips from happy to angry for her dad, her parents get a good picture of how she is experiencing their relationships. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. This new understanding of their child’s experience helps the parents proactively improve relationships and use their understanding to increase their effectiveness in parenting their child. Supportive empathetic parenting and family sessions increase these results.
4. Play Therapy isn’t just for kids—Adults and Adolescents Can Benefit from Play Therapy
Physically engaging in therapy through play offers benefits for adults and teens as well. Engaging and integrating the brain is readily accomplished through Play Therapy which uses more of the brain than simply talking about issues with your therapist. The novelty and unplanned nature of play takes an older client ‘off script’ where new understanding and creative problem solving can emerge. This can be especially helpful in Family Therapy where those of any age can actively participate with a Family Therapist trained in Play Therapy. Some of the proponents of using play therapeutically for older clients include interpersonal neurobiology pioneer Dan Siegel who published training on the Role of Play and Creativity in Psychotherapy in 2015. When families participate in play therapy together, they work out relational problems by playing out problems and solutions in a fun non-threatening way rather than arguing through histories of disappointments verbally.
5. Play Therapy helps those who have experienced Trauma to address the pain that exceeds their words
Trauma is by nature ‘unspeakable’ at any age and often those who have survived it struggle to find the language to tell their story and begin the healing process. Through play we can bypass the ‘unspeakable’ nature of trauma by initially showing, without words, what has occurred and what impact it has had in a person’s life. It’s the beginning of telling the story and finding the power to seek healing and restoration.
For more information about Play Therapy, my services, or my speaking engagements visit my website at www.MyPlayTherapist.com. Be sure the person you chose for your therapy or your child’s therapy has the training to serve you well. You can find a trained Play Therapist in your area by visiting the International Association for Play Therapy website at www.A4PT.org or a Family Therapist by looking for a professional with LMFT or ALMFT after his or her name. To learn more about me or my colleagues, book an appointment, or read our other blog posts visit us at www.BBellAssociates.com.