By Maria Lebron, February 2020
In play therapy, toys are like the child’s words and play is the child’s language (Garry Landreth, 2002). Play therapy is used with children, usually under the age of 12, although therapists may use some type of play or activity with children older than 12 and with teens.
Children often don’t have the verbal skills needed to express themselves and they don’t have the life experience and coping skills to deal with emotional problems, anxiety, fears, or negative behaviors. A child can usually express themselves through play, art, and talking. Each child is different so even with children who are the same age, one may be able to sit and talk with the therapist, while another may find talking for the entire session difficult and the therapist may then need to use a combination of talk and play. With a very young child, the entire session will be centered around play.
Play Therapy Activities
Each therapist has their own approach to working with children based on their personal style and training, but in most cases, the therapist usually has specific activities in mind. These activities will hopefully give the therapist some insight or create an opportunity to hear the child speak about what they’re feeling through the activity they’re doing. Depending on the child, they may prefer to play by themselves with little involvement from the therapist, while others want the therapist to participate and will direct the therapist as to what to do.
Depending on the particular activity the child is being asked to do, the therapist may not want to comment or ask questions while the child is working/playing. The therapist will observe the child and when the activity is over, the therapist and the child discuss the work. Other times, the therapist may want to ask questions as the child is working/playing. Most of the time, even when the therapist is asking the child to perform a specific activity, the therapist will usually not direct how the child performs that activity outside of giving basic instructions to the child. The therapist wants to observe how the child performs the activity and hopefully get the child to discuss what they experienced or created. Some children prefer more structured play, while others are able to take the therapist’s instructions and then build on them using their own imagination.
How Does the Child Work Through an Issue?
At times, the activity can give the therapist a way to focus and address something the child needs to work through. If a child is experiencing issues with self-confidence or competency, the therapist may want to urge the child to be more independent and make decisions on their play. With an angry child who is testing the boundaries in the session, how the therapist reacts to the child can be helpful to the child learning that while the therapist cares about the child’s feelings and acknowledges them, setting appropriate limitations may be necessary for the safety of both the therapist and child.
Depending on what issue the child is working through, certain activities may be repeated for a few sessions in order to see the progression throughout a period of time. For example, for a few sessions the child may be asked to draw a mask. How the child describes the mask and how it’s drawn gives the therapist insight into their inner world in a way that they may not be able to verbalize or even be aware of. The activity or play performed in a therapy sessions becomes a way for the child to communicate, share information, and work through something. The play is also a way for the therapist to form a trusting relationship with the child. The more the child trusts and feels comfortable with the therapist, the more they can express through their play and words.
In addition to working directly with the child, the therapist will work with the family members in order to gain insight into the child’s feelings and concerns and help the family gain the skills needed to help the child at home. Families are an important part of successful treatment. In some cases, the therapist may have activities that the family performs together or may discuss some of the child’s work in a family session. I’ve experienced family sessions where the children were able to express their feelings to their parents in a way that the parents could understand what the child was experiencing and the family could then make adjustments in their actions, behavior, or thinking.