What is play therapy?
Play therapy is a structured, theoretically based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children (Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002; O’Connor & Schaefer, 1983).
Young children’s language formations lags behind their cognitive development. During pre-primary and formative primary school years they, therefore, communicate their awareness of what is happening in their world through their play. In play therapy toys are viewed as the child’s words and play as the child’s language–a language of activity. Play therapy, then, is to children what counseling or psychotherapy is to adults.
In play therapy the symbolic function of play is what is so important, providing children with a means of expressing their inner world. Emotionally significant experiences can be expressed more comfortably and safely through the symbolic representation the toys provide. (Landreth and Bratton, 1999)
Why play therapy?
Over the years a growing number of mental health professionals have observed that play is as important to human happiness and well-being as love and work (Schaefer, 1993). Landreth (2002) argues that play is a fun, enjoyable activity that elevates our spirits and brightens our outlook on life. In the therapeutic setting, play expands self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy. Play relieves feelings of stress and boredom, connects us to people in a positive way, stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego.
Given the opportunity – in a safe and facilitated environment, children will play out their feelings and needs in a manner or process of expression that is similar to that for adults. Although the dynamics of expression and the vehicle for communication are different for children, the expressions (fear, satisfaction, anger, happiness, frustration, contentment) are similar to those of adults.
Children who may have considerable difficulty trying to tell what they feel or how their experiences have affected them benefit tremendously through play. In the presence of a caring, sensitive, and empathetic adult, they will reveal inner feelings through the toys and materials they choose, what they do with and to the materials, and the stories they act out (Landreth and Bratton, 1999). Play therapy is particularly beneficial to children who have suffered trauma as it is a supportive guide for them to externalise instead of internalise it. Play therapy has long-term effects on a child’s coping mechanisms, behaviour and overall functioning.
In summary, play therapy provides a therapeutic intervention to children, acting as an aid of communication to express their feelings and process the associated thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and beliefs; especially in children who are unable to communicate their feelings, either due to trauma, cognitive abilities or their own emotional process of establishing trust.
Where Charlotte comes in
Charlotte, the Connect Group’s play therapist believes in developing children holistically, through resources that are familiar and natural to them – a term she calls the “head, hearts and hands approach -“Our thoughts can control how we feel and our feelings can control what we do. At times when we don’t know how to think or feel we naturally express ourselves through our actions- our play and art”.
Charlotte follows the “Gestalt” approach to therapy, where the child engages in a process natural to them; at their own pace, whilst the therapist facilitates the process. This approach considers the age of the child, the cognitive abilities of the child, and the emotional capacity of the child, acknowledging that each child processes trauma and adverse events at their own unique capacity and pace. This approach is beneficial for children aging 4 onwards, following the child in their own frame of development.
Play therapy, therefore, provides a creative approach to healing and building resilience in children, particularly with children who are having challenges such as;
- Parental conflict – separation, divorce
- sexual assault and trauma
- Family dynamics – the addition of family members (step-parents, adoption, foster care)
- Children’s court assessment-related matters (separation, abuse, foster care, adoption)
- Self-esteem/identify formation
- Anger management/ behavior modification
- Challenges at school (bullying, identify formation, adjustment)
- Emotional regulation and adjustment in light of COVID-19
Charlotte is a passionate play therapist and child counselor who believes that – “Children are capable of extraordinary things. We cannot protect our children from the world, however, therapy can provide them with the skills to navigate through life’s challenges. Therapy can help to build resilient children, who are equipped to develop into adults who can take their rightful place in society”.
Landreth, L & Bratton, S. (1999). Play therapy. Eric Digest, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Lilly, JP., O’Connor, K., Krull, T. Play therapy makes a difference. Oregon State University.
Written by Charlotte Tinnion and Caley Wildman