Play therapy refers to a large number of treatment methods, all of which make use of one or more of the natural benefits of play. All Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist helps children systematically address and resolve their own problems. Play therapists use techniques such as music, art, games, puppetry and sand tray to help children confront what is bothering them. Play is fun and allows them a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows them to express their true thoughts and feelings in ways best suited to their developmental level.
Therapists use the curative powers inherent in play in many ways. They may employ the language of play to help children express what is troubling them when they cannot share their thoughts and feelings in words. Through play, therapists may teach children more adaptive behaviours when there are emotional or social skills deficits. The positive relationship that develops between therapist and child during play sessions may provide a corrective emotional experience or serve to release the natural healing resources that lie within the child. Therapeutic play may also be used to promote cognitive development and provide insight about traumatic experiences and facilitate a more positive view of self and the world.
Children are brought into Play Therapy to safely address and resolve their problems. Often, by the time children arrive for therapy, families have used up all of their own options for solving their problems and simply do not know what else to do. By this time, children may be acting out at home, with friends, and at school. Play Therapy allows trained play therapists to assess and understand children’s play and to use it in assisting the child in coping with difficult emotions and in finding solutions to their problems. By safely confronting their problems in the protected Play Therapy environment, children find creative solutions.
Research supports the effectiveness of Play Therapy with children experiencing a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioural, and learning problems such as post-traumatic stress, aggression, anxiety/fearfulness, grief and loss, depression, impulsivity, low self-esteem, and social withdrawal. It is used successfully with children whose problems are related to life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, physical/sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters.
Play therapy is especially appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old.
Play Therapy can help children to:
- Learn to experience and express emotion and to be empathic with respect to thoughts and feelings of others;
- Develop respect and acceptance of their own strengths and limitations, and those of others;
- Develop new and creative solutions to their problems;
- Improve their ability to have positive relationships and function well in the external world, such as at home and at school;
- Take responsibility for their behaviour and replace inappropriate behaviour with more successful behaviour.
Families play an important role in children’s healing processes. The interaction between children’s problems and their families is always complex. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something stressful occurring in their family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child’s problems are so disruptive. In all cases children and their 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 the Play Therapy. At a minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child’s caretakers to develop a plan to resolve problems as they are identified and to monitor the progress of the treatment. Other options might include involving:
- The parents or caregivers directly in the treatment;
- The whole family in Family Play Therapy.