By: Panicha McGuire, LMFT, RPT
Welcome to my blog series on play therapy! The series will go over how play therapy works with children, teens, and even adults! I often get many questions and concerns from parents regarding the use of play therapy and how it works. My hope is that this blog series can shed some light on some myths or concerns. There’s a common misconception that play therapy is simply playing, and as many parents would think, “Why would I pay for someone to play with my child?”. Play therapy is actually more than just play. It’s actually a recommended treatment for children of all ages. Children communicate through play. They play before they even acquire verbal language. Imagine a child who has witnessed violence and abuse in the home, their play would most likely reveal themes of aggression and violence with their toys. Therapists use play therapy to help children express their feelings when they might not have verbal language to do so, or when saying it out loud is difficult. The goal of play therapy is to help children express themselves through a comfortable medium, and learn effective ways to solve problems.
What can I expect in play therapy for a young child or school-aged children?
At our practice, parents and caregivers play an important role in the child’s treatment. I usually start with an intake interview with parent(s) to collect information about the child, and to discuss what they hope to see change. When it applies, I also like to include the child’s teacher, providers, or other caregivers to get a good overall look at the child’s environment. In the playroom, there are specific types of toys and games that encourage the child to express themselves such as dollhouses, instruments, or arts and crafts. Depending on the child, I would either let them express themselves without any direction from me (nondirective) or I would guide them with specific activities (directive). Play therapy sessions typically start at once a week and usually last 45 minutes. In my experience, nondirective therapy works best for my clients that have difficulty opening up or have had traumatic experiences as these clients need time and space to resolve their issues. Most clients that I see, however, fall under the directive category. This type of play therapy has more input from the therapist and includes teaching skills or asking direct questions to the child. Although directive play therapy resolves issues quicker, it is best for certain cases. During the intake, I discuss with parents what they can expect from play therapy and which direction I would be taking with their child. Below are some examples of what play therapy would look like.
Play therapy with children ages 0-5
Play therapy with very young children (0-5) looks very different from play therapy with children who are more developed. Therapy with young children have high parental involvement and often is used in family therapy. I’ve worked with many parents and toddlers on building a connection or stronger emotional relationship, especially with those who have gone through a divorce, blended family, or separation. I introduce many activities that would promote eye contact, soothing touch and interaction. I’ve worked on reunifying some parents and toddlers who were separated at birth by helping them learn how to relate to one another. For children who have some language, some activities I use to help promote expressing and exploring their feelings include: using clay to make facial expression, drawing, and painting. To help explore what is going on in their lives or teaching them healthy communication skills through role playing, I might use stuffed animals, puppets, or a dollhouse. With some children this age, giving them nondirective play also allows me to see themes of how they might be feeling or are treated at home or school.
What about school-aged children?
Play therapy with older children who already have verbal language tend to be more directive in my office. Some examples include playing board games or card games to teach impulse control (not going out of turn, shouting out the answer, cheating), learning social skills through role playing, playing Candyland to express their feelings (ex. each color is a different emotion), creating fun ways to use relaxation skills, or drawing their support network. If you come by our office, you might catch me playing red light green light down the hallway to help my client learn how to control their body.
All in all, play therapy is about creating a healthy working relationship with your child. Sometimes the feedback I get from children is that I’m one of the few adults they can trust to talk about difficult things with, and I also hear from parents that sometimes I say the same exact thing they have already said to their child but they happen to listen to me! As an adult, it can be very easy to sit opposite of your therapist and delve into the problems that brought you to treatment. But for children, they need a more fun and creative way to get their minds working and that’s really what play therapy is!
At Thrive, we take a positive, client centered approach to therapy that is focused on creating a genuine connection with our clients. If you would like to talk with a Thrive Therapist about yourself, your child, or teen attending therapy, please reach out to us by phone at 858-342-1304.
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