What Exactly IS Play Therapy?
Since most adults communicate mainly by talking, it makes sense that when an adult is struggling with something, they often participate in some form of talk therapy. However, since a child's natural mode of communication is play, play therapy gives them the opportunity to deal with whatever is going on in an environment that encourages healing to take part though play. A therapist trained in play therapy procedures provides selected play materials in order to help the child fully express and explore feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors through play.
A non-directive or child-centered play therapist is trained to trust that children are capable of directing their own process rather than the therapist imposing their own ideas of what the child needs to do in therapy to work through any challenges they may be facing. This requires the therapist to enter the inner world of the child rather then expecting the child to understand the therapist’s world, which is beyond their capabilities. This type of play therapy is respectful of each child's individual process and it is based on the belief that a child has an innate ability to direct their own healing.
How does Play Therapy help?
It is not uncommon for children to express their inner thoughts and feelings in a maladaptive way at home or school because of their inability to articulate their experiences. They communicate emotional distress through behavior. By reflecting a child’s process and feelings expressed through play in the play therapy room, the therapist begins to give the child a vocabulary of feelings. More importantly, by reflecting the child’s emotions and experience, the therapist helps the child feel understood and validated. During this process a child usually experience a connection with the therapist that is often different from any other relationship they have. It is through this relationship and the therapist’s ability to communicate with the child that a child feels safe, understood, and validated. This builds a child's confidence so that healing can happen.
When to seek Play Therapy?
Children often misinterpret their world and experiences which can lead to fears, anxieties, and misbehaviors. Child-centered play therapy has been widely researched as an effective and developmentally appropriate method for working with children dealing with the following types of concerns, among others: depression, grief and loss, social adjustment problems, speech difficulties, trauma, reading difficulties, enuresis and encopresis problems, fear and anxiety, abuse and neglect, aggression/acting out behaviors, attachment difficulties, chronic illness and disability, and parental separation or divorce.
Scheduling a consistent appointment time each week is helpful in providing predictability for the child who enters play therapy. This also provides continuity and more efficient treatment. Parents/guardians are a very important part of the therapeutic process and will be asked to meet periodically (or more frequently depending on the particular circumstance) with the therapist. Eventually, the play therapist will begin to spread out sessions, making them less frequent, when a child begins to exhibit signs of improvement.
Is my child too old for play therapy and too young for conventional talk therapy?
Typically, play therapy is used with children between the ages of two to nine years old; give or take a year or two. I once had a nine year old take one look at the play therapy room and exclaim, “No way! This room is for little kids. Can we just go in your office and play with the games I saw in there and talk?” So what to do? Older children still need to play and use play as a means of communication, but are also developing the vocabulary and insight to talk about some feelings. I find that the best way to go is to employ a combination of talk, play, and structured activities in my office. The older kiddos usually enjoy talking while taking part in activities such as board games, making art, creating collages, listening to music, etc. My goal, as with play therapy, is still to enter their world and allow them the opportunity to lead me in their healing process.