Finding your voice in a world of 7.7 billion inhabitants can be quite burdensome. This is especially true for our youngest members of society, who have not mastered the art of verbal or written expression. Try as much as they can, children frequently cannot articulate the feelings, thoughts, or ideas that reflect their worldview. As such, play becomes their means for expressing themselves. It stands to reason that in order to better appreciate & understand any young child, one must be willing to enter into the young child’s world through the use of play. Ironically, play therapy does exactly that, and because of this, play therapy is effective in addressing various childhood problems.
What is Play Therapy?
According to the Association for Play Therapy (APT), “Play therapy is a structured, theoretically based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children.” More simply, this approach to counseling centers around a supportive relationship between a young child (i.e. ages 3-12) and a specifically-trained clinician involving communication through play by utilization of toys, art supplies, games, activities, stories, or other supportive materials/tools. In sessions, the young child literally “plays out” his thoughts, feelings, concerns, or experiences similar to when adults “talk out” their issues. Variations in play therapy, much like “talk therapy” exist. Play therapy can be non-directive, whereby the child is in control & has power over the direction of sessions; or it can be directive, whereby the counselor guides & interprets play-based interactions.
Play Therapy Instead of Talk Therapy?
Play, instead of talk, is the main focus of therapy sessions for young children for a number of reasons. Specifically, children under the age of 12 typically have limited ability to verbally identify and communicate feelings & thoughts. Additionally, children in this age range typically struggle with: using & understanding nonverbal communication, recognizing & understanding abstract concepts, as well as finding meaning. Not to mention, they are still working to strengthen their skill with: paying attention, initiating tasks, planning ahead, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. Therefore, the expectation of them coming into a therapy session, sitting down, & then using words, throughout the duration of the session, to communicate their concerns is unrealistic & unachievable for many children. Let’s be honest, the previously mentioned expectation is difficult enough for adults, let alone for children!
Play is an appropriate approach for therapy with youngsters because play allows for natural expression of self; experimentation; skill development, & learning. More specifically, play allows the child to bring forth feelings & thoughts that have not been verbalized before. Additionally, play allows the child to constructively play-out intense feelings and/or negative or unhelpful thoughts tied to stressors, while trying-out new ways of responding &/or behaving. Not to mention, play therapy allows the child to engage in limit-testing , while learning about the consequences of one’s actions. Through the use of play in sessions, the child strengthens several skills including but not limited to: socialization, self-regulation, problem-solving, & executive functioning. Finally, an environment that is rich in items for manipulation & self-expression, creates an inviting and warm space for a young child. Typically, children are more at ease in a space that is child-friendly- one in which toys and other child-friendly items are present.
It’s An Effective Treatment for What Issues?
According to Terry Kottman, author of Play Therapy: Basics & Beyond, research on play therapy has found it to be an effective treatment for various issues or concerns. General Issues that can be addressed in play therapy sessions include:
- Aggressive Behaviors,
- Family Issues,
- Social Difficulties,
- Withdrawn Behaviors,
Children who have previous diagnoses, such as those listed below, can also benefit from play therapy:
- Anxiety Disorders,
- Autism Spectrum Disorders,
- Developmental Delays,
- Learning Disabilities,
- Mood Disorders,
- Selective Mutism,
- Speech Difficulties,
Children who have experienced the following forms of trauma are appropriate candidates for play therapy:
- Child Abuse,
- Chronic Illness,
- Divorce &/or Separation of Parents,
- Immigration Difficulties,
- Involvement with the Foster Care System,
- Natural Disasters,
- Parental Military Deployment,
- Parental Substance Use,
- Witnessing Violence
Thus, play therapy can be a viable option for nearly any childhood issue or concern. The exceptions, though few, are for more severe issues, including active suicidal/homicidal ideation, severe conduct disorder, and for those children who show signs of psychosis.
Regardless of age, everyone wants to be recognized & validated. With children, we must modify the ways in which we communicate with them, if we truly want to understand & appreciate their thoughts, feelings, & view of the world. Play is the means for doing that; & play therapy is an effective form of treatment that recognizes play for what it is-a communication method!
Need Additional Information?
If you have any questions about play therapy or if you would like to talk to me directly, please contact me at 217-231-1413.
Brandy Kruse, MA, LCPC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor at Connections Family Counseling in Quincy, IL. She specializes in working with youth, parents, & families. She is accepting new clients at this time & you can reach her at: 217-231-1413 ext. 803.