Updated: Aug 26, 2021
You've done some homework and scheduled your child for their very first Play Therapy session. Still, you find, yourself questioning how Play Therapy is going to help your child and you have no clue about what to expect. How will your child "playing" with a therapist really help what your child is struggling with? If this sounds like you, sit tight. Below we explain what you really need to know about Play Therapy.
1. What is play therapy?
First of all, what is Play therapy? Simply put, it is a type of therapy where a therapist uses play, toys, and games to help the child explore, express, and safely experience the difficulties they are working through. Remember, the "play" is a tool, a method of sorts. Your child's therapist has been trained to pick up and uncover insights about your child's inner world that you wouldn't otherwise recognise.
This is what makes Play Therapy the most accessible for children ages 3 to 16 as it is the most developmentally appropriate type of child therapy available. I am sure, you cannot imagine your six-year-old sitting in a therapists' office, lying down on a sofa, and sharing their feelings fluently. Lucky, the alternative allows the therapist to meet your child at their level, to assist with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
Remember your child's Play Therapist is a rigorously trained professional and has to go through an extensive certification process to ensure they are competent at using "play" to heal your child. Play therapy’s effectiveness as a mental health approach has been supported by empirical psychological research since the early 1920s.
2. How does play therapy work?
Play therapy focuses on relationships and experiences to create positive changes in the brain. While your child explores their concerns, the therapeutic relationship helps regulate their emotions, which then allows the brain to make important structural changes.
For example, Sarah, is a 4-year-old little girl, and recently her parents separated. She is moving to a new home with her dad and has just started at a new school. At school, she experiences some awful bullying from her peers. She has always experienced physical symptoms of anxiety when she's talking about her recent traumatic experience. Using play, Sarah can work through her traumatic experience without feeling the same symptoms of anxiety because she feels different physical sensations through play. Sarah's brain can now rewire to have a new understanding of her anxiety, especially with repeated sessions that cement her learning.
3. What you can expect when you bring your child to play therapy for the first time?
When you first meet your play therapist, they will do an assessment with your child that lasts for about 45 minutes. During this time, they will gather general information and you should share as much as you can about any challenges, recent changes etc. You will also be asked to fill in a questionnaire. Then you will schedule weekly sessions. Each Play therapy session occurs every week and is generally 45 minutes long. In the session, your child will play and have fun. However, not every session will be fun. You will usually not be part of the session unless you want to consult with the therapist beforehand or afterwards.
4. How to help your child be successful in play therapy?
The first thing you need to keep in mind is that these play therapy sessions can be triggering and emotionally exhausting. Be sure to give your child downtime after sessions, and do not schedule them for academics instead let them know that it’s okay for them to want or need some space and provide some time for distracting activities. While it may be frustrating for you to take a hands-off approach with play therapy, it will help with your child’s healing process to experience play therapy without any parental expectations.
Respect your child’s healing process in play therapy as your child’s time. Therapy is generally slower for children than it is for adults. Play therapy is an evidence-based therapy, and like all therapy, children often get worse before they get better. Encourage your child without putting pressure no matter how the therapy is going. Be mindful of the questions you ask them as it can make them feel as though they have to go to play therapy with the goal of getting a good result to report to you.
5. How will my play therapist share my child’s progress?
Let's check in with Sarah, the little girl from the example above. During her play therapy sessions, Sarah is consistently creating play narratives about a little girl who gets bullied – her play therapist might work through why Sarah keeps bringing up this narrative. Then, her play therapist would communicate with her dad about this pattern, and behaviors that might be arising out of it, and how to help Sarah. Sarah's dad takes that information and helps Sarah at home.
Your child's play therapist won’t tell you about every single thing that happens in the playroom. This is out of respect to your child’s process. In other words, you won’t get a detailed description of everything your child did and said in the session because it wouldn’t really be helpful to your child. However, play therapists will talk about themes & patterns seen in the playroom – and will use these themes and patterns to help you learn new ways of working through your child’s own behaviors, motivations, and emotions.
Remember that you can always talk to your child’s therapist if you want additional information or aren’t sure how something is working. Play therapists are here to help and are more than happy to talk through the process with you!