What Is Play Therapy?
The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”
This means that play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them. Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, verbalize feelings, adapt behavior, expand problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others. In addition, play provides a safe psychological distance for children’s problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development.
How Does Play Therapy Work?
Play therapy allows trained mental health clinicians who specialize in play therapy to assess and understand children’s play. In addition, play therapy is utilized to assist children to cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to problems. By confronting problems in play therapy sessions, children find healthier solutions. Additionally, play therapy allows children to change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve their concerns.
Who Benefits from Play Therapy?
Play therapy is especially appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old; however, individuals older than 12 years old could also benefit from play therapy.
Play therapy could be utilized as a primary intervention or in support of other types of therapies for:
- Behavioral problems caused by bullying, grief and loss, divorce and abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, crisis, and trauma.
- Mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), academic and social impairment, physical and learning disabilities, and conduct problems.
How Will Play Therapy Benefit A Child?
Play therapy helps children be more responsible for their behaviors and acquire more successful strategies, obtain new and creative solutions to their problems, develop respect and acceptance of self and others, learn to identify and verbalize emotion, develop empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others, expand their social skills and interpersonal skills with their family, and improve their self-efficacy.
How Is a Child’s Family Involved in Play Therapy?
Families play an important role in children’s healing processes. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something wrong in the family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child’s problems are so disruptive. In all cases, children and families heal faster when they work together.
The play therapist will make some decisions about how and when to involve some or all members of the family in play therapy. At a minimum, the play therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child’s primary caregivers to develop a plan for resolving identified problems and to monitor the progress of the treatment for the child. Whatever the level of involvement of the family members, they typically play an essential role in the child’s healing process.
An Illustration of Cognitive-Behavioral Play Therapy Technique: “All Tangled Up”
In this example, the play therapist begins by telling the child, “Everyone has worries and sometimes we have so many worries that they get all tangled up inside. Today we are going to untangle those worries. Let’s start by pulling out one thread at a time and naming it.” The play therapist then gives an example of one big worry and one small worry and pulls some yarn out from a tangled ball. The play therapist helps the child untangle at least 5 or 6 worries. As the child cuts each piece of yarn, the play therapist or the child writes the worry on a small piece of paper and tapes it on the yarn. The play therapist then tells the child that that he or she is going to tie the worries up all around the room until they look like a spider web. The play therapist then talks with the child about ways to cut the worries down and discusses strategies to deal with their anxiety. As the child verbalizes each strategy, he or she uses the scissors to cut down one thread of the web.