Play Therapy is a specific counselling approach in which games, toys and mediums such as clay, drawings and paint is used to help a child or adolescent to express their emotions, thoughts, wishes and needs. It helps them to understand muddled feelings and upsetting events that they have not had the chance or the skills to sort out properly. Rather than having to explain what is troubling them, as adult therapy usually expects, children use play to communicate at their own level and at their own pace, without feeling interrogated or threatened.
Two world-renowned play therapists describe it as follows:
“I feel privileged to have found effective ways of helping children ease through some difficult passages in their lives. Children are our finest teachers. They already know how to grow, how to develop, how to learn, how to expand and discover, how to feel, laugh and cry and get mad, what is right for them and what is not right for them, what they need. They already know how to love and be joyful and to live life to its fullest, to work and to be strong and full of energy. All they need is the space to do it.”
- Violet Oaklander
“Through play a child is able to release pent-up feelings of anxiety, disappointment, fear, aggression, insecurity, and confusion. Bringing these feelings to the surface encourages the child to deal with them,
learn to master them, or abandon them. Through symbolic representation, the child gains a sense of control over events that seem uncontrollable in reality. Often, children are unable to verbally express what they are feeling; thus, in play therapy toys serve as children’s words and play as their language.”
- Garry Landreth
Play Therapy can be useful for any child of four years and older. It can help to become aware of what feelings and how these feelings manifest in behaviour or one's body. They can learn how to become better at regulating emotions and expressing them in constructive ways. They can discover who they are and what their strong and weak points, needs, wishes, thoughts and dreams are.
The combination of this self-knowledge and training in social skills may help a child to become more assertive, self-confident and to have self- respect and respect for others.
The initial focus of the therapy is on building a relationship between a child and the therapist. This relationship is a very important tool in the therapeutic process because a child or adolescent will more readily talk about their intimate feelings when they feel respected and accepted.
In the sessions the therapist uses specific techniques to assess how a child or adolescent experience their world and how they communicate and react to the events and people in their world. Children are lead to become aware of what they are feeling and opportunities are given to express these feelings. Awareness is a very important process in play therapy, because without awareness change is not possible.
Throughout the therapy the child or adolescent is empowered and supported to learn more about who they are, to talk about things that are frightening or painful, to be self supportive and to experiment with new behaviour.
Play Therapy is very effective with adolescents. Sessions focus on creative techniques to help adolescents become aware of and understand their feelings and thoughts. An example would be to ask the adolescent to draw a situation, feeling or dream, enact it or model it in clay. Music is often used when building the relationship or for expressing emotion.
Play therapy is an effective aid in assisting adolescents to learn about themselves, clear up their cluttered emotions or thoughts, learn to accept themselves and to become more mature and self-confident.
Play therapy also provides opportunities to experiment with new behaviour in a safe environment, be it in individual therapy or in group therapy. Group work is quite effective for making friends, becoming
assertive, and learning skills and coping mechanisms from other teenagers who experience similar problems or challenges.
Play Therapy gives a child or adolescent the opportunity to discover and express feelings (such as grief, denial, depression, anger, guilt or a shaken sense of security and identity). Often these feelings which may accompany an experience of divorce may only be exhibited a few months, or even years after the divorce.
Parents learn what their child's or children's experiences of the divorce are and work with the therapist to develop ways to support their child through this painful process.
This depends on the child's personality, the nature of the bond between the child and the therapist and the nature of the problem. Some children are very shy and need a lot of encouragement to express their feelings and thoughts, while others are quick to talk. Children who have been hurt badly by adults might be apprehensive and might need a long time to trust someone and feel free to talk. Some children have developed clever ways to avoid thinking about their feelings because this is too painful for them and they need time to feel safe to break down their barriers and build courage to deal with their emotions and the painful events in their lives.
In general, a child or adolescent attends therapy for at least 10 therapy sessions as this usually gives sufficient time to build a relationship of trust and to have time to discover more about feelings and thoughts, to feel free to express them and to start talking about solutions
The therapist develops a trusting relationship with the child. She participates in activities and play. She creates a safe environment in which the child can get in touch with who he is, what he is feeling, thinking, wishing and dreaming. She does not judge or interpret, but rather reflects on what she sees and experiences with the child. She believes in the child's own ability to find a balance in his life, therefore she helps him to become aware of what he is doing and feeling to enable him to make changes if he wishes to do so.
Sometimes she makes suggestions, but the responsibility for accepting and applying these suggestions rests on the child. She always gives the child choices, because children cannot accept responsibility for something they did not choose themselves.
Interaction with the parents forms a crucial part of therapy. The therapist usually talks to the parents prior to the first session with the child, because it is important to understand the context in which the behaviour of the child has developed. It is also necessary to know what the parent's communication and discipline patterns with the child and the nature of boundaries are. The therapist then works with the child alone, but she will contact the parents should important issues arise. Regular feedback sessions are usually scheduled at the parents request. The therapist and parents will work together to understand the child and to develop constructive, respectful and supportive ways of communication with the child.
Before taking a child for play therapy, tell her that she is going to a play therapist who is going to help her understand her feelings while she paints, draws, tells stories, listens to music, plays with a ball or makes something out of clay. Explain that it helps to talk about feelings, because if feelings are all kept inside and ignored they might cause a feeling to want to boil over. Or a child might become confused, unhappy or even act in ways that feels out of control and frightening.
It can be intimidating to talk to someone they do not know, but the approach is non-threatening and the therapist does not force children to talk about something that they do not feel ready to talk about. If it is difficult for the child to separate from parents, they can sit in on the whole or part of the first session.
Any parent who struggles to understand or is concerned about his or her child's behaviour can have the child assessed. Examples of
troubling behaviour are extreme or continuous separation anxiety or clinginess, aggression or anger outbursts, crying, withdrawal, anxiety and fears. The assessment is done in context of a therapeutic relationship and combined with play therapy techniques; therefore the atmosphere therefore is relaxed, playful and supportive. The play therapist is usually able to determine some or all of the following aspects:
• The self-image of the child.
• The extent to which he shows self acceptance
• The child's ability to identify, accept and communicate her emotions.
• The nature of the relationships between the child and other family members.
• The child's perception of her own ability to cope with her present situation.
• The stressors in her life.
• Aggression (nature and function).
• Signs of anxiety and depression.
• Issues that are subconsciously a worry to her (out of her awareness).