Play has been recognized as important since the time of Plato (429–347 B.C.) who is said to have remarked, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a year of conversation!”
The Association for Play Therapy states, “Play is known to be as important to our health, happiness, and well being as love and meaningful work. Play elevates our spirits and brightens our outlook on life. It expands self-expression, self-knowledge, and self actualization.”
Additionally, play can: regulate and enhance our emotional state; relieve feelings of stress; provide a positive connection to ourselves and others; foster expanded thinking and the ability to problem solve; and stimulate creativity and curiosity. Because of these natural healing qualities, the power of play can be used in the therapeutic relationship for acceptance, expression and resolution of a wide variety of concerns.
How Play Therapy Works
Play therapy provides a safe, systematic and interactive modality for children to express their feelings and experiences, and assists in resolving emotional, behavioral, social and learning difficulties, life stressors, and major traumas. Since play is the natural medium of expression for children, it is an important vehicle for expressing what is troubling them when they are not ready or are unable to articulate their feelings or thoughts verbally. In play therapy children can create a world in which they can overcome frightening feelings, practice and master personal and social skills, and symbolically triumph over the upsets and traumas that have stolen their sense of well being.
A trained play therapist is able, through observation and assessment, to understand the metaphorical content of children’s play, and can help them express their feelings, needs, and challenges and move toward resolution by using the power of their natural creativity. By safely confronting their problems in the protected play therapy environment, children are able to experiment with and practice new emotional responses and develop more appropriate and successful behaviors.
Parents are important allies in the play therapy process and can do much to enhance the work their child does in the therapy sessions. The therapist will meet regularly with parents to discuss such things as: themes observed in the child’s play, family dynamics, parenting, and communication skills, and the child’s emotional state and behavior in school and other settings. And, as a team, the therapist and the parents/caregivers will create practical strategies that can be implemented in the child’s world outside of the therapy session.
Research supports the effectiveness of play therapy with children experiencing a variety of behavioral, emotional, social, and learning problems, and life stressors such as:
- Low self esteem
- Excessive anger, worry, sadness or fear
- Behavior that is not age appropriate
- Attention and focusing issues, difficulty learning or other school problems
- Difficulty making or keeping friends
- Excessive shyness
- Poor boundaries and trouble with personal space
- Problems with eating, sleeping, or elimination
- Lots of headaches, stomach aches, illnesses, or other bodily complaints
- Difficulty adjusting to family changes
- Preoccupation with sexual behavior
- Self harming behavior
- Suicidal thoughts, gestures, attempts
And traumas such as:
- Chronic or terminal illness
- Illness or injury of a family member
- Divorce or separation
- Death of a family member or close friend
- Birth trauma
- Painful or frightening medical procedures
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Witnessing domestic violence or the abuse of others
- Disasters such as accidents, fires, flooding, earthquakes
Maribeth Nelson MA, LPC has been doing play therapy with children (and others!) for over 19 years and has attended numerous trainings in play therapy. She has also provided play therapy supervision to community mental health therapists for the past 10 years.