Updated: Aug 26, 2021
The idea that play therapy isn't a wholly serious or legitimate approach to therapy is a common misconception with which play therapists often have to contend. Perhaps naturally, those who aren't familiar with the theory might be sceptical to the effectiveness of allowing a child to freely explore a room full of toys for the entire length of the therapy session.
However, under the trained eyes of a play therapist, the toys are a medium through which the child communicates, learns, self-discovers, shares experiences, thereby forming a trusting therapeutic relationship.
The play serves only as a bridge to therapy. Play therapists often stress that simply having some toys in a therapy office or encouraging children to draw or play with blocks as they talk with a counsellor or psychologist is not play therapy. Our children are doing real work in the play therapy room.
Play therapists are meticulously trained and have to receive the relevant education, training and supervised clinical experience to become fully competent in a speciality area such as play therapy before using it in practice.
Play therapy was developed as a methodology to assist children where traditional treatment fails. Children aged 2 -9 years experiencing emotional and behavioural problems often lacked the vocabulary and could not communicate effectively. Therefore, this allowed Play therapy to gain momentum as a viable approach to work with young children. It centres on the premise that children communicate best through their usual way of relating — play. Using play in therapy is the most natural and effective way to help children.
How does Play therapy work?
It begins by helping children express their feelings and assume responsibility for all of their behaviours. It teaches them how to develop problem-solving skills. It is important to remember that Play therapists are trained mental health practitioners specializing in helping young children. One of the questions I ask parents is, "How will you know when your child has changed and no longer has this problem?" The reason I do this is to establish a benchmark for change. It is essential for me as a therapist to develop goals with parents before starting therapy as it allows us to assess change and monitor behavioural outcomes.
Parents often wonder how we will address these goals in the playroom. When I have a young child deemed "out of control" at home and school, I build a relationship with the child. During the session, the child will learn to assume responsibility for his/her decisions and will have opportunities to demonstrate self-control if setting limits is necessary for the play therapy session. In this way, parents begin to recognize that what occurs in the nondirective playroom becomes helpful in addressing issues arising at home and school. In the example above, goals were established that specified how many days each week the child would comply with their mother's requests, not have a tantrum at home, not hit themselves.
There are no predetermined interventions during the play therapy sessions that seek to change the child's behaviour. Instead, play therapists consistently offer a safe relationship and an environment in which the child is free to be self-directive. Child-centred play therapists continually reflect upon their way of being in clinical supervision to address the issue of inadvertently directing the child's behaviour. Play therapist mainly focuses on the relationship they have with the child rather than the initial problem. Thus, we face unique challenges in helping parents understand how this theoretical approach supports children in meeting their goals.
In conclusion, Play therapy fills a wide gap in therapy services for young children. It is effective with tangible results that have allowed children to make massive strides in their emotional and behavioural development.