“Play therapy is based on the fact that play is the child’s natural medium of self expression. It is an opportunity which is given to the child to ‘play out’ his feelings and problems just as, in certain types of adult therapy, an individual ‘talks out’ his difficulties.” – Virginia Axline, “Play Therapy”
Sigmund Freud believed he could understand children by watching them play. He was right. According to the Association for Play Therapy’s website, play is the child’s language. Play:
- Is fun; it’s enjoyable.
- Elevates our spirits; it brightens our outlook on life.
- Expands self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy.
- Relieves stress and boredom.
- Helps us connect to people in a positive way.
- Stimulates creative thinking and exploration.
- Regulates our emotions.
- Boosts our ego.
- Allows us to practice skills and roles needed for survival.
- Fosters learning and development.
Play therapy is the child’s mode of communication, for sharing his world, his inner thoughts and feelings, and the meanings that he makes of his experiences of the world. It’s the child’s opportunity to communicate what he can’t as easily put into words. It is child-to-self communication, similar to the way that many adults go over and over a topic that’s bothering them when working with a therapist – in ways that they won’t when thinking about it alone, even if they’re doing it “all the time.” Specially trained mental health professionals use play therapy to help kids express what’s troubling them when they may not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and how they’re feeling. It builds on the natural way that kids learn about themselves and their relationships with the world around them.
The Association for Play Therapy defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychological difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”
In adult therapy, the counselor’s listening and empathic responses help the client work through their problems and gain insight. In play therapy (particularly Child-Centered Play Therapy, or CCPT), with the counselor’s attentive tracking and empathic responses, kids work all the way through their own repetitive, unproductive loops to reach new understandings of their experience, and new decisions of who they want to be and how they want to behave.
Play therapy is used to help kids cope with different emotions and find solutions to problems. By confronting their problems in this setting, kids are able to find healthier solutions.
Who Benefits from Play Therapy?
Everyone can benefit from play therapy, including teenagers and adults! It is especially appropriate for children between the ages of 3 and 12. Play therapy is identified as the treatment of choice in mental health, school, agency, developmental, hospital, residential, and recreational settings with clients of all ages, according to the Association for Play Therapy. As is the case with most therapy modalities used in treating children, it is most effective when a parent/caregiver is also actively involved in the child’s treatment; kids and families heal faster when they work together. The therapist will decide how and when to involve some or all of the child’s family members. At minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child’s caregivers to develop an appropriate treatment plan, as well as to identify and monitor progress.
What Issues and Concerns Does Play Therapy Help?
Play therapy is often utilized as the primary intervention or as an adjunctive therapy for multiple social, emotional, and behavioral disorders, including (but not limited to):
- Anxiety disorders
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Depressive disorders
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Oppositional Defiant and Conduct Disorders
- Anger management
- Grief and loss
- Divorce and family dissolution
- Academic and/or learning difficulties
- Social developmental difficulties
How Long is a Play Therapy Session?
Play therapy sessions generally last for 30-50 minutes. For most school-aged children, I frequently allow for 45 minutes per session, once a week. The length of a session is dependent, however, not only on the age of the child, but additional factors as well, such as the child’s attention span and developmental level.
On average, it may take approximately 20 sessions of play therapy before treatment is deemed to be complete. However, this also varies from child to child. Some children require fewer sessions, while more serious or ongoing issues may require more. I ask parents and caregivers to be patient; it may seem sometimes as though all we’re doing is “playing,” but in reality, the child is hard at work.
Who Can Provide Play Therapy?
While many trained clinicians sometimes utilize play techniques in their sessions, the practice of true play therapy requires extensive specialized education, training, and experience. A licensed mental health professional with a Master’s or Doctorate degree must receive advanced, specialized training, experience, and supervision in order to be credentialed by the Association for Play Therapy as a Registered Play Therapist (RPT), Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT-S), or School-Based Registered Play Therapist (SB-RPT).
I am currently in the process of becoming a Registered Play Therapist (and have been for some time now). This means that I am permitted to practice play therapy while completing my training and required hours of experience while under the supervision of a RPT-S. If you’re interested in play therapy for your child (or even for yourself!), please contact Creative Resilience Counseling at 304-292-4050 or by contacting me on the website’s Contact page. I look forward to working with you and your child!
For more information about play therapy, check out the Association for Play Therapy’s website!