Written by: Dr. Lauren Wynne, LPC, NCC, RPT-S
What is Play Therapy?
Play is the natural language of children and is a metaphor or symbolic expression of what is occurring in their lives. Play is to children as verbalization is to adults. Early childhood experts agree that play facilitates:
- Expressive Language
- Communication Skills
- Emotional Development
- Social Skills
- Decision-Making Skills
- Cognitive Development
Erik Erikson, an expert on human growth and development, defines play as a situation in which a child can deal with experiences by creating model situations and master reality by experimenting and planning. Play offers opportunities for self-expression, mastery, and growth in a way that fits the child’s developmental level.
Naturally, toys and other materials play a role in the therapeutic process. If play is considered the language of children, then toys are their words. Children in play therapy are able to choose from an array of toys. They are given the power to determine what toys to use and how to use them. If a child decides to use a toy in a destructive manner, the counselor will use limit-setting to help the child learn more effective and socially appropriate ways to express himself or herself and exhibit self-control.
The relationship between a child and his or her counselor is important to the therapeutic process as well. Child-centered play therapists follow Virginia Axline’s (1969) eight guiding principles in their interactions with child clients:
- The therapist is genuinely interested in the child and develops a warm, caring relationship.
- The therapist experiences unqualified acceptance of the child and does not wish that the child were different in some way.
- The therapist creates a feeling of permissiveness and safety in the relationship so that the child feels free to explore and express self completely.
- The therapist is always sensitive to the child’s feelings and gently reflects those feelings in such a manner that the child develops self-understanding.
- The therapist believes deeply in the child’s capacity to act responsibly, respects the child’s ability to solve personal problems, and allows the child to do so.
- The therapist trusts the child’s inner direction, allows the child to lead, and resists the urge to direct the child’s play or conversation.
- The therapist appreciates the gradual nature of the therapeutic process and does not attempt to hurry the process.
- The therapist establishes only those limits that help the child accept personal and appropriate relationship responsibility.
The Role of Parents in Play Therapy
Parents are the most important adults in their child’s life. It makes sense for parents to be actively included in the therapeutic process of play therapy. Parents play a vital role in accurate assessment and successful outcomes. Parent consultation creates opportunities for parents to gather information about their child’s functioning and learn new ways to help their child be successful at home and at school. At times, the play therapist will invite parents to participate in Filial Therapy training. This training teaches parents how to use play therapy principles and skills to enhance the child-parent relationship. This training may be offered in an individual or group training format.
The Challenges of Growing Up
Children benefit from Play Therapy in many ways. Research findings support the effectiveness of play therapy with an array of social, emotional, educational, and behavioral concerns including:
- Post-Traumatic Stress
- Reading Difficulties
- Social Withdrawal
- Low Self-Esteem
Play Therapy is also helpful to children experiencing difficult life situations, such as divorce, grief, relocation, illness/hospitalizations, natural disasters, and violence/abuse.
We strive to help children find appropriate ways to feel important and significant. Healthy, happy children grow into healthy, happy adults.