Play is the natural and spontaneous language of children; children of all races and cultures play. Play is fun, creative, expressive, and critical to healthy development. During play, children learn about the world around them, their own capacities and limitations, social rules, and it creates a bridge between fantasy and reality. In play, children interact with others in ways that express how they experience in new situations and in ways that rehearse new skills. In addition, children learn to communicate in play by showing others things that are too complicated to say.
“In play therapy, the play is a child’s conversation and the toys are their words.” – Garry Landereth
Play therapists believe that children are not yet developmentally able to gain insight from conversation the way that adults do; their ability to relate to abstract concepts is still immature. Play therapy is a way for children to bridge from their concrete world to that of the abstract concepts of emotions and thoughts about their world. Children communicate their emotions, problems, and distresses through play therapy often more effectively than using language. Using a play therapy room, the child can change behavior and mood through play with selected toys that have been placed in the room for a specific purpose.
Play Therapy then utilizes the healing power of play to resolve psychological difficulties in children and young people. In Play Therapy there are a variety of treatment methods – i.e. Child Centered Play Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy, Adlerian Play Therapy, Gestalt Play Therapy – all from different theories but still using one or more of the natural benefits of play. Play therapy differs from regular play because the therapist empowers the child to systematically address and resolve their own problems. During play therapy, children can confront what is bothering them in a fun and creative way that allows them to express their true thoughts and feelings in a manner best suited to their stage of development. Play therapy provides children a safe, emotional distance from their problems, often working in metaphor to make the subject less frightening.
Play therapy has been proven to be an effective, short term therapeutic approach (often 20 sessions or less). It has been documented over time and in current studies to be highly effective in resolving emotional strife displayed in the behaviors of children (www.A4PT.org). In this relatively short therapy experience children can learn to:
- Take responsibility for changing their behavior
- Feel mastery over their world
- Develop new and creative solutions to problems
- Develop respect and acceptance of themselves and others
- Safely experience and express a wider range of emotions
- Be empathetic to the thoughts and feelings of others
- Control their anger and manage anxiety
- Resolve trauma reaction
- Face their fears
- To employ new social skills and coping strategies
- Respect limits and boundaries
As is true for all treatment, in play therapy each child and young person is unique with individual needs; more serious and ongoing problems may take longer to resolve.
Play Therapy has been documented to be effective in situations of:
Trauma– A single situation such as a frightening event (911, Boston Marathon Bombing) dog attack, auto accident, or house fire; or multiple-event experience such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, emotional and physical abuse or neglect, foster care placement, natural disasters, military deployment, or war.
Adjustment problems – Life struggles resulting in anxiety and depression from divorce, remarriage, moving, new siblings, bullying, school adjustment, or losses of family members, friends, or pets.
Attachment and Adoption Adjustment Difficulties – Family system adjustment, grief and loss of family of origin, lack of emotional bonding in the first 3 years, mistrust of adults, emotional dysregulation.
Depression in childhood– Resulting in low self-esteem, confusion, low motivation, irritability, anger and aggression.
Anxiety Disorders – Inability to speak in public or in front of others (not family members), performance or social anxiety, separation anxiety, emotional dysregulation (i.e. tantrums and crying fits), and a lack of coping skills.