What is Play Therapy?
A therapeutic approach typically used with children ages 3 to 12 years old to explore and express feelings, experiences and thoughts. The process is free from extensive, rigid rules or limitations and allows for the child to freely explore, make choices and play. Play therapy aims to help children communicate their inner world, express themselves in healthy ways and discover new ways to solve challenges. The play therapist is specially trained to engage with the child through play in such a way that is supportive, empathic and open.
Why Play Therapy?
There are many reasons why parents seek out play therapy for their children. Play therapy can help a child improve communication, modify behaviors, develop problem solving skills and learn ways to relate to peers and loved ones in a more positive manner. Play therapy is helpful for children who are currently experiencing trauma or have experienced trauma in the past. Play therapy allows the child to share and work through trauma that might feel too scary to talk about. Witnessing stressful events in life, for children, can be particularly traumatic and cause them to get “stuck” developmentally, regress to an earlier age or experience somatic symptoms. When this happens parents might see changes in their child’s patterns of sleeping or eating or their child’s behavior might drastically change. It can be hard for parents to make sense of and to know what to do.
When children witness stressful life events, a serious illness, domestic violence, abuse or a family crisis, symptoms of distress also tend to arise. We work with children through play to give them the tools to express feelings they may not be able to share or have the vocabulary to express following a traumatic experience. For many children play is the only way for them to process traumatic experiences and we quickly see progress and healing when working with young children in this way.
The early onset of some childhood mental health disorders can also start as early as elementary school. Parents and teachers might start to notice the child falling behind at school or having difficulty navigating relationships with peers at school. Some schools offer resources, but many lack the in-depth understanding and ability to work with the child one-on-one through play that is most effective for children who are struggling. At South Florida Counseling and Assessment, some of the most common childhood concerns addressed through play include social difficulties, behavioral and learning disabilities, anxiety and depression, attention deficit disorders, as well as anger and grief.
Parents and caregivers play a large role in the play therapy process. The play therapist will curate a specific play therapy approach with specific types of tools and at home interventions to be implemented between sessions. Oftentimes play therapy incorporates art therapy, music and storytelling. Depending on the age of the child, sand tray therapy is also incorporated into the play therapy.
Play is Speaking Your Child’s Language
Research has shown that for young children, play is their main method of expression, meaning-making and communication. There are two main approaches to play therapy: nondirective play therapy and directive play therapy. Nondirective play therapy is based on the belief that children can work through, express and ultimately resolve their issues and fears within the play process when given the freedom to play without specific instructions. Directive play therapy, compared to nondirective, is more structured and influenced by the clinician.