Play therapy is a well-researched and effective therapeutic approach. When provided by an experienced, trained therapist, play therapy is proven to be a highly effective approach for helping children resolve distress and improve interpersonal relationships. Play therapy enables children to communicate their feelings, experiences and ideas through play, their natural medium of expression.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is one form of psychotherapy with children. This is a method in which professional psychotherapists, who may be psychologists or clinical social workers, help children overcome emotional and behavioral difficulties through different forms of ‘play’ or activities. Play therapy allows children to express and process feelings, thoughts, and experiences through their natural desire to play. Therapeutic play empowers the child to overcome challenges without demanding words, explanations, or adult reasoning. Play therapy can be used to help children deal with traumas, family issues, emotions, and developmental challenges.
A typical play therapy session lasts for about 30-50 minutes depending on the age of the child. Specialized play therapy approaches can be used with infants and toddlers to restore or develop parent-child attachment. Play therapy with preschoolers and school age children may focus on parent-child attachment, trauma resolution or preparation for challenging events (such as surgeries, chronic illness, changes in family dynamics). School aged children and teens may use play or expressive arts therapy to help deal with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, family conflict, addictions, trauma, loss, interpersonal relationships, and communication difficulty.
While many people think of play therapy as children with toys, play therapy can utilize many mediums. This can include (but not limited to) storytelling, music, dance, clay-play, mask making, sand-tray work, models, puppets, collages, painting and drawing, beading, and board games. The only limits are the resources at hand, and the creative inspiration of the child and therapist. Through these many mediums, the child has an opportunity to explore, express, and process their thoughts and feelings without having to worry about judgement or language.
The child play therapist will often work with the child’s parents and siblings to increase insight and communication skills with their child. As understanding increases and communication approaches shift, there is often a reduction in the child’s concerning behaviors. This may lead to marked increase in household happiness and overall resiliency gains for all family members.
How Does Play Therapy Work?
The play therapy space is designed to engage but not overwhelm the child. Age appropriate toys are made available. The play therapist provides structure regarding session goals. Once the child is engaged in the therapeutic process, the psychologist steps back to allow the child to develop their play themes. In this way, the child learns that they can be creative and expressive in a supportive and safe environment.
Trained play therapists can identify themes within the child play. Typically, the play process will become "stuck" at the point where the child experiences emotional distress. Once the psychologist has identified where the child’s play is "stuck, the therapist will intervene within the play medium to help the child resolve their distress. To do this well, the therapist must have a deep understanding of child development, typical play processes, and an ability to meet the child where they are at. While the therapist may provide an interpretation of the child’s symbolic play to the child’s parents, the key element is for the therapist to be able to enter the child’s world and to work within that world to create change. Forcing, teaching, or artificially introducing solutions to the "stuckness" may make things appear better, but in the long run only serves to further undermine the child’s problem solving skills.
When done well, play therapy allows children to identify and resolve challenging issues. Successful play therapy typically concludes when the parents report that the child is consistently functioning at a better level than when the therapy began. Depending on the age of the child, the child may report an improvement in mood, confidence, or social connections.
Families play an important role in a child’s healing and development processes. We at Firefly, encourage children to share feelings with their parents in each of their counselling session. If you wish to know how our professional Edmonton psychologists can help, it’s best to contact us.