For those not familiar with Play Therapy, it may seem like an odd concept. As a required course in my graduate studies program, I distinctly remember thinking that “this is definitely not going to be something I utilize as a therapist.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. In a nutshell, the Play Therapy treatment method helps children process what they have experienced, make sense of their reactions and feelings to their experiences, and ultimately helps them achieve a greater sense of self so that they feel okay with who they are. Play, in its simplest form, is a natural – yet dynamic – self-healing process children engage in. Just as adults use talk therapy to help process their experiences (trauma, grief, anxiety, relational issues, etc.), children use toys and simple play as symbolic self-expression. Spend five minutes observing a park full of kids — you’ll see all kinds of stories, imaginative play, active motor skills, and self-regulation happening. Garry Landreth, a pioneer of Child Centered Play Therapy, sums it up well: “The toys are their [children’s] words, and play is their language.”
So what’s the difference between my child playing at home and my child playing with a counselor?
This is a valid question and I can assure you that Play Therapists are not just expensive babysitters. The therapist’s role is to provide a safe atmosphere for the child by intentionally observing, listening empathetically, and recognizing not just their actions, but also their wants, needs, and feelings. We don’t judge, shame, or provide answers to children when they play. We simply aim to see them and accept them for who they are in that moment. Ultimately, we hope the child will come to accept themselves. This may look like an altered self-concept or overall attitude. The counselor reflects, redirects, and encourages a child throughout the entire duration of their play. There are numerous Play Therapy techniques, and not one Play Therapist is exactly the same. I personally use a child-directed approach when working with children because I believe the power to change comes from within the child, rather than the change resulting from advice or information I, the adult therapist, give the child.
Who can benefit from Play Therapy?
Any child can benefit from Play Therapy, just as I believe any adult can benefit from talk therapy. Here are specific examples of children who might benefit greatly from Play Therapy:
- A child who has experienced trauma
- A child who displays anxious or depressive behavior
- A child who has lived through the loss of a loved one
- A child who has undergone any change in the home (divorce, moving houses, a new family member moving in, etc.)
- A child who has difficulty controlling anger
- A child who has trouble transitioning to school.
This list is not exhaustive, but these are some of the reasons children may come to see us.
Seeking out counseling for your child is one of the most proactive steps you can take to begin them on a journey of healing and change right now. It’s normal for a parent to experience guilt or shame when considering counseling for a child. I want to reassure you that it’s one of the most loving things you can do for your child! We all reach points in our lives where we become stuck, and there are seasons where we need extra support and resources to help us reach a place of health and wholeness. Age is not a discriminatory factor — counseling, and specifically Play Therapy, can be an instrument of healing for anyone.
For those interested in learning more about how you can engage in meaningful activities with your children, our team also offers parenting classes that can help teach you how to be a therapeutic agent in your own home!
Written by Sarah Dangaran, MA, LMFT Intern
Adapted from Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.