Play Therapy is the way of incorporating a child’s unique developmental stage and help them resolve unwanted behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in a language that they understand – play.
Chances are that you have often heard the term “Play Therapy” used when discussing child counseling and therapy; but what is it? Maybe you think of a someone is an “expert in child therapy” and plays UNO for 50 minutes. Or you think of a dingy office with a large sand tray filled with miniatures carefully arranged to represent the child’s life. But, is that all it is? How can “playing” with a child help them better control their emotions, get their chores done, stop fighting with their sister, or just listen to me when I tell them what to do?!
Just as adults may find relief from discussing their issues and concerns with a therapist using traditional talk therapy, kids can find relief by using play therapeutic approaches with a trained play therapist. Research shows that play therapy can be effective for all children no matter background, age, culture, presenting issues, etc. (https://www.a4pt.org/page/WhyPlayTherapy).
I was a new therapist in an overworked agency who was thrown into working with children and families with very little clinical support on effective approaches and interventions. Even though, I loved working with children, I didn’t feel like I had the best tools to be the effective child therapist that I wanted to be. That’s when I found the magic of using play therapy techniques with my client, Sam.
After many failed attempts at connecting with Sam, an 11-year-old client, using traditional talk methods about sadness, school subjects, and friends (all met with a fair amount of uncertainty and reservation) I felt as if I were a terrible therapist. During our third session I picked up a Jenga game and started to play. I could see, almost immediately, the child’s shoulders ease and comfort settle while eagerly picking up the Jenga pieces and I noticed, for the first time, a slight smile come across Sam’s face.
As the tower of wooden blocks grew taller and unsteady our conversation continued evolving and strengthening. With our focus on the game, Sam was not focused on keeping the conversation going and I could naturally discuss topics related to our treatment goals. Sam began to discuss overwhelming feelings from being bullied, home-life, conflict with family that all contributed to a depth of hopelessness and worry that was paralyzing. I couldn’t believe the progress we made in one session from simply playing a game to ease our minds that was fun for both me and Sam!
This is just one small example of how play therapy techniques are effective with clients. There are far more theories, models, and interventions that are used by Registered Play Therapists (RPT). And no, using Jenga is not a play therapy theory but it can be a tool! To find a Registered Play Therapist, you can use the Association for Play Therapy website (a4pt.org). As for myself, I am in the early stages of obtaining my RPT designation and crafting my expertise. I encourage you to find a child therapist to get your child help using the language that they understand, PLAY!