What is Play Therapy?
The Association for Play Therapy defines play therapy as "the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help children prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development."
Play therapy is a structured, theoretically-based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children. Therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children express what is troubling them, when verbal language fails to express difficult thoughts or feelings. Toys work like the child's words and play is the child's language. Through play, therapists help children learn adaptive behaviors to help cope with stress. A positive relationship develops between therapists and children - this provides a corrective emotional response necessary for healing.
Initially developed around 1900, today "play therapy" refers to many treatment methods which apply the therapeutic benefits of play. Play therapy differs from regular or "talking" therapy in that it builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationship with the world. Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and learn new ways of relating. Play provides a safe psychological distance from a child's problems and facilitates developmentally appropriate expression of thoughts and feelings.
How does Play Therapy Work?
Children are referred for play therapy from a variety of sources - schools, parents, after school/day care programs, pediatricians - to resolve their problems. Often, children have used up their own problem solving tools, and may misbehave or act out in school or at home. Trained mental health practitioners use play therapy to assess and understand children's play. It is also utilized to help children cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to problems. By confronting problems in the clinical play therapy setting, children are able to find healthier, more productive solutions. Play therapy changes the way children think about, feel toward, and resolve problems and stressful situations.
Generally, play therapy begins with a consultation with a child's parents, to obtain a history and background of the presenting problem. A follow-up meeting will be scheduled with the parent and child together, so that the therapist can assess the child's development and establish rapport with the child. Another meeting with the child's parents may be scheduled, to share observations and initial impressions, as well as to ask further questions. Play therapy is generally conducted on a weekly basis, with regular contact with the parents to share ideas and concerns. Sometimes, play therapy is conducted with the child by him/herself, and sometimes therapy is conducted with the child and his/her parents. Therapy begins by following the child's lead - this is an opportunity for the child to explore and share his/her ideas and feelings, rather than a quiz of a child's knowledge of a particular topic.
Who benefits from Play Therapy?
Play therapy is the treatment of choice for children of all ages. It is especially appropriate for children 3 - 12 years, but is frequently applied to work with infants, toddlers, and adolescents, as well. Play therapy is effective for children whose problems are related to life stressors, such as divorce, relocation, death, hospitalization, chronic illness, stressful experiences, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters. Play therapy is also appropriate to address other mental health concerns, including anger management, anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism or pervasive developmental disorders, social issues, physical and learning disabilities, and conduct disorders.