March 2, 2023

Why Play Therapy?

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Maybe you’re looking into counseling options for your child, or maybe you know someone who sees a Play Therapist, or maybe you’re just generally curious about the topic of Play Therapy! Either way, in this blog I hope to give just a brief snapshot of what Play Therapy is and why it is a great option to pursue.

What is it?

A simple definition of Play Therapy is a form of counseling or psychotherapy in which play is used as a means of helping children express or communicate their feelings. Just like with all psychotherapies, there are plenty of more specific therapeutic styles within Play Therapy, but generally speaking I think that definition covers it. It is therapy (most often for kids) in which the child and therapist (or sometimes the child, child’s family, and therapist) use play in a number of different ways to work with the child towards healing or growth in whatever area it is needed.

So, why would someone choose Play Therapy?

At the end of the day, the purpose of any therapy is to move (or as a therapist to help a person move) towards mental and emotional health and well-being. With that broad-strokes perspective, the purpose of Play Therapy is the same: for the child to move towards mental and emotional health and well-being. So what is it about Play Therapy that makes it a good option for kids?

Developmentally speaking…

For a matured and well-developed brain, therapies that involve critical and abstract thinking and verbal processing (like most traditional talk therapies!) can be extremely helpful. For a less matured and less-developed brain, those kinds of therapies can be much less effective, likely because kids or adolescents don’t actually have the capacity to engage in that way.

If you look at a child’s typical developmental timeline, the first thing you might notice is that language development doesn’t happen right away. Kids may start talking between 1 and 2 years old, but it’s another couple of years before they can actually tell stories, use full sentences, or speak logically or coherently. Kids actually begin using language as a tool to communicate around the time they start primary school, but their cognition still isn’t where you’d want it to be for effective talk therapy. Children can’t accurate perceive the events they experience until around 9 years of age, and can’t accurately see others’ perspectives until 10 or 11. This is also the age when they become more capable of logical and rational thought, and are able to begin reflecting upon themselves. Problem-solving and abstract thinking don’t come into play until adolescence, when kids are also able to gain insight and think hypothetically.

Talk therapy relies on insight, problem solving, abstract thinking, and often hypothetical thinking (i.e., considering the consequences of an action without having to perform or experience that action). Talk therapy might be boring for kids, but more than that it is often impractical. Children that don’t respond to talk therapies likely aren’t being difficult or stubborn- their brains just have not developed enough yet to engage with a therapist or with themselves in that way. Play Therapy offers different mediums with which kids can engage.

Play is a child’s language

There are lots of different kinds of play therapies that utilize different tools and techniques. Some use sand trays or expressive arts, some use toys or board games, some involve the whole family, some involve the child and a parent. But the underlying commonality with them is that the therapist is trained to engage the child with play or activities to assist the child in achieving greater mental and emotional health and well-being.

So why Play Therapy?

A well known play therapist Garry Landreth answers this question well when he explains that play is a child’s language, and toys are like the child’s words. Children can benefit from therapy, and Play Therapy is a method that allows children to feel safe, comfortable, and able to engage.

If you’ve been struggling to connect with your child about specific events, unpredictable or discouraging behaviors, or difficult topics and have found yourself landing flat you aren’t alone! Consider play therapy as a way to process emotions for any kid who may not have the vocabulary or capacity to participating in a discussion. I am very encouraged by the work I get to do with children, and would commend anyone who would like to know more about this to ask questions and engage our staff!

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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