What is Play Therapy?

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a type of psychotherapy. Play therapy in many cases sets the stage for children to be more comfortable as they talk with professional counselors about the things involved in their play, including issues that are troubling them. Professional counselors often learn a lot about child patients just by watching them play and observing how they treat their toys.

Play therapy can be a catalyst for health professionals to begin to discover the underlying psychological shortcomings a child may be facing, and to recognize their psychological drawbacks. Using play as a window to feelings and observing a child’s use of imagination can help illuminate depression, phobia, cognitive difficulties, and other issues.

Using child play therapy can help children (and adults) become better integrated into society; they learn how to confront interactive situations, match behaviorally with peers, talk to parents and others less defensively, improve their vocabulary skills, handle and respect materials properly, and behave more appropriately.

The concept of play therapy has been recorded as far back as 429 - 347 B.C. when the philosopher Plato was quoted as saying, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Play therapy gained traction when Sigmund Freud was credited with the first documented case describing the therapeutic use of play. In 1909, Freud published his analysis of Little Hans, a five-year-old child with a severe phobia. Freud worked with Little Hans once, and then corresponded regularly with the boy’s father, recommending that he take note of Hans’ play to gain insight into the source of the phobia. Since then, play therapy has grown in acceptance as a legitimate therapeutic technique, and has evolved through the decades since.

During play therapy sessions, children’s behavioral tendencies, and verbal and intellectual capabilities are brought to light, and are observed, recorded and analyzed by professional counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists to illustrate areas that need clinical attention. Building blocks, dollhouses, farms and animals, both domestic and wild, play kitchen, toy knives and swords, puppets, musical instruments, art supplies, costumes, and other toys are offered to children in a play therapy playroom.

Types of Play Therapy:

Types of play therapy include three main categories: child-based, family-based, and group-based therapies. Specialized and appropriate therapy is determined based on a child’s age and preferences. All three therapeutic approaches can be applied with different levels of a therapist’s participation.

Child-Based Therapy

This is a kind of insight-oriented psychotherapy with the participation of only the therapist and the child. Here, the focus is likely to be on concerns about a child’s family and any dysfunction or abuse. A therapist uses this approach to comprehend the entire scenario regarding the issues belonging to a child’s home environment and the parents’ attitudes. Children may not be able to address the status of the family situation however, so the therapist has to identify and evaluate the child’s description and expressions during the child’s active participation in the play therapy.

This therapy is designed to discover and address a child’s feelings of inadequacy first; then any family dysfunction is taken into consideration by therapist. A child’s behavioral problems, including: Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Typical or Atypical Physical Absence, Attention Deficit Disorder, Learning Disorder, Bulimia, Anorexia Nervosa, Obesity, anxiety, restlessness, Depression (Reactive Type), Bipolar Disorder, Delusion, and any other dysfunctions and disorders, are minutely handled after proper detection by the therapist.

Family-Based Therapy

A child’s family members usually participate in this type of therapy. Family members are requested to provide accurate information regarding a child’s history of disease, dysfunctions, or symptoms.

The intention of this therapy is to let the child participate with parents and/or siblings in the presence of the therapist, though this is not mandatory. However, a therapist may observe and record any difference in a child’s mental and physical states before and after the presence of parents and/or siblings.

The therapist needs to observe and inform parents about his or her observations of positive and negative aspects of a child’s behavior after a session is over.

Group-Based Therapy

This therapy, based on the participation of a group of children together, can be very effective. In this therapy children play together, while the  therapist remotely or directly observes their play, noting any differences between the behaviors and activities of their patient compared to the other children in the group. This therapy is can be beneficial if the child feels intimidated working alone with the therapist, and can provide the therapist with observations based on comparison.

Directive and Non-Directive Therapy

The use of directive vs. non-directive therapy is based on whether the intent of therapy is to help the child achieve cognitive recovery or behavioral improvements.

In directive therapy, the therapist asks the child questions to encourage them to speak openly regarding general topics -- as well as taking part in some activities with the child.  In non-directive therapy, the therapist remotely observes the activity of the child and then derives an analysis through interpretation of what they do. The child’s observed activities can include, but are not limited to, drawing, writing, and playing with toys. The non-directive therapy approach is designed to improve the child’s psychodynamic approaches, while directive therapy is geared toward improving a child’s behavior.

Structuring an Effective Play Therapy Environment

Taking the right steps to coordinate beneficial play therapy is a key part of the therapeutic process. To ensure successful play therapy, and to reap the best results using modern-based psychology theories, it is important to define the desired outcomes and identify the best approach to achieve them. The therapist’s goal throughout the play therapy process is to help children with the following:

  • Learn more about the world and universe around them, especially the fundamentals.
  • Gain knowledge about how things work by paying attention to their surroundings.
  • Express themselves as much as possible to others.
  • Improve physical skills.
  • Improve mental skills and create new life skills.
  • Understand the importance of social bonds, and develop personal and social skills.

An effective play therapy environment should facilitate the following:

  • Providing a secure space for children to express their emotions.
  • Assisting children in finding constructive ways to express their feelings and thoughts.
  • Improved accountability, communication, and problem-solving skills through insight-oriented play therapy techniques.
  • Developing an  enhanced attitude toward social exploration.
  • Learning to develop friendships and trust in others, including the confidence to learn from others, and the curiosity to learn more about their ever-expanding worlds.
  • Mistakes can become lessons without fear, as children learn to feel socially safe and secure.
  • Positive activities with positive outcomes can boost concentration and confidence.
  • Enhancing imagination and creativity can help dismantle delusions.

The more indirect the play therapy approach used, the more short-term the results of the therapy will be. Conversely, longer-lasting results often require additional, more direct therapeutic approaches.  And, while play therapy often resolves issues in the short-term, there is no guarantee that those issues may not resurface later in life.

Play Therapy Products

While the prime focus of play therapy is play, the therapeutic goals, child’s age, comprehension, and functionality, and other variables determine the specific products used for this purpose.  Building blocks, dollhouses, farms and animals, both domestic and wild, play kitchen, toy knives and swords, puppets, musical instruments, art supplies, costumes, and other toys that provide children with opportunities to re-create real-life interactions, are often used in a play therapy playroom to facilitate free play.  Other, more structured play therapy supplies include books, drawing materials, playing cards, board games, as well as tips and techniques covering the entire playing process.

Some play therapy products are specifically designed for use by children, while some are designed for parents and caregivers as well. Play therapy games & toys may also highlight a child’s limitations and inabilities. A healthy bond with other players, such as their therapist, parents and/or other children, will help the child to become more deeply involved, and make the therapeutic value of the activity more successful.

Most therapeutic play products afford children the challenge of finding solutions with certain facts at a certain stage of the game, helping them to develop new skills and new levels of critical thinking. They can provide a greater awareness of mathematical functioning, interaction with linguistics, and opportunities to play with materials they might use in daily life situations.

Some play therapy products can be used alone or in groups with other players, including: friendship balls, anger balls, puzzles, activity books, and tangle therapy. The guidelines for playing with such products should be strictly maintained in order to derive the maximum result.

How parents can use play therapy to impact positive results in children’s behavior

Parents’ can make a significant contribution to the success of their child’s play therapy by taking several critical steps:

  • Parents must learn to interact with their children in positive ways.
  •  They should guide their children’s behavior by example, modeling the behaviors and attitudes they want to see in their children.
  • Children should be given free time to play, both indoors and out, to stimulate creativity and imagination.
  • Exposing children to, and fostering interactions with other children and adults of various ages, and in various situations, will expand their knowledge and understanding of appropriate social behavior.

Despite the fact that a child’s intelligent quotient (I.Q) is not changeable, parents can and should take the time to help improve their children’s social and life skills,  and their understanding of how things work in the world.  This will, subsequently, create alternative pathways for learning, including teaching children to accept help from their therapist.

Parents can also foster a therapeutic home environment by doing the following:

  • Use therapeutic play products that have been recommended, approved, and explained by their child’s therapist.
  • Avoid dramatic conflicts, and shield children from family dysfunction as much as possible.
  • Learn the proper techniques to create a therapeutic playroom, e.g., arranging toys and objects in a “Sand Play” sandbox, and helping the child play with it in the absence of the therapist.
  • Refrain from making overly negative comments about their children’s performance and/or behavior, which can be extremely detrimental to children’s self-image and self-esteem.  Parents should use positive, supportive language, and give praise and encouragement for their children’s efforts.

Many parents approach children and their behaviors reactively rather than with thought and evaluation. They unwittingly ignore children’s needs without bad intent. But little moments like these can have a big impact on a child, especially troubled children.  Depriving children of affection and tender appreciation forms the underlying pattern of comprehensive behavior, both as children and as adults.  What parents do -- all the time – has an impact on a child’s development.

Using Play Therapy to Deal with Trauma

Children who have had traumatic experiences often close themselves off from the world around them. The portion of the brain which controls the verbal expression of a child can shut down due to experiencing the trauma. Moreover, all perceptions are stored at the sensory stage, which can cause speech to become inaccessible.

Play lets these memories breathe and become expressible again, and subsequently begins the process of re-engagement with the verbal world. Play therapy can create a sense of safety for the child, a place where they can open up and begin to express themselves, if only initially through actions. While handling toys, children can find outlets of expression through the materials and substances. Through close observation of the child while they are playing earnestly with toys, the therapist comes to know which particular object or material the child associates with the trauma, and can proceed accordingly to help the child detach from traumatic memories. While enjoying the toys, children can generate a psychological distance from what caused their trauma, while still working through their difficult feelings and associations.

Play therapy can teach children dealing with trauma:

  • Positive and negative comprehension of the event(s).
  • Trust and reliance on other people.
  • Self-reliance, resourcefulness, and creativity in the face of difficulty.
  • Improve skills and capacity to cope.
  • Develop insight and evaluation skills.
  • Openness and responsiveness to positive feelings and experiences.

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