Play Therapy

Play dough game

“Play therapy is based upon the fact that play is the child’s natural medium of self-expression.  It is an opportunity which is given to the child to ‘play out’ his feelings and problems just as, in certain types of adult therapy, an individual ‘talks out’ his difficulties.”  Virginia Axline

What is play therapy?  Play therapy is a technique where by the child’s natural means of expression, namely play, is used as a therapeutic method to assist him/her in coping with emotional stress or trauma.  Play therapy creates a safe atmosphere where children can express
themselves, try new things, learn more about how the world works, learn about social rules and restrictions, and work through their problems.  This method allows the child to manipulate the world on a smaller scale, something that cannot be done in the child’s everyday environment.  Play therapy provides the tools and the atmosphere to help children express themselves, work on their problems, try out different solutions, and learn more effective coping
methods.  Through play and the guidance of a therapist who reacts in a designated manner, the child plays out his/her feelings, bringing these hidden emotions to the surface where s/he can face them and cope with them.

At first, you might wonder why anyone would suggest play as a way to overcome children’s problems.  Here’s why play therapy is often recommended for children:  Play is the primary way children learn about the world, understand how different things work, express their thoughts and feelings, develop their physical skills, develop their mental skills, and develop effective social skills and bonds.

As children grow, their use of language becomes more sophisticated, but throughout childhood, they usually express much more of themselves in their play.  We can understand our children better if we understand their play.  By watching children we often learn more about their thoughts, feelings, motivations and struggles than by talking with them.  Play has been called the “language of childhood”.

Therapy is helpful for:  

  • Children who are dealing with parental conflict, separation or divorce
  • Children struggling with social skills
  • Children who have been traumatized through sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • Children who have been adopted or are in foster care
  • Children who are dealing with issues of loss, such as illness or death of a loved one
  • Children who have been hospitalized
  • Children who have witnessed domestic or non-domestic violence
  • Children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD)
  • Children who have experienced serious accidents or disasters

The benefits of therapy are:

  • Facilitates a child’s expression of feelings
  • Creates or enhances healthy bonding in relationships
  • Develops a sense of trust in self and others
  • Promotes self-confidence and a sense of competence
  • Reduces anxiety about traumatic events in the child’s life
  • Defines healthy boundaries
  • Promotes appropriate behavior

Signs to be aware of:

  • Separation anxiety
  • Excessive anger, worry, sadness or fear
  • Difficulty adjusting to family changes
  • Aggressive behavior (hurting self or others)
  • Behavioral regression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive shyness
  • Learning or other school problems
  • Sleep, eating or elimination problems
  • Rejection by peers or difficulty being accepted by peers
  • Physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches that have no medical cause

Common themes in Children’s Play:

  • Anger/sadness
  • Nurturing/rejection/security
  • Trust/relationship/abandonment
  • Boundaries/intrusion
  • Power/control
  • Self-esteem/self-worth/empowerment
  • Fears/anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Identity
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Loss/death
  • Loneliness
  • Adjustment/change

Tenets for Relation to Children (by Virginia Axline)
Children are not miniature adults and the therapist does not respond to them as if they
were. Children are people.  They are capable of experiencing deep emotional pain and joy. Children are unique and worthy of respect.  The therapist prizes the uniqueness of each child and respects the person they are. Children are resilient.  Children possess tremendous capacity to overcome obstacles and circumstances in their lives.  Children have an inherent tendency toward growth and maturity.  They possess an inner intuitive wisdom.  Children are capable of positive
self-direction.  They are capable of dealing with their world in creative ways.  Children’s natural
language is play and this is the medium of self-expression with which they are most comfortable. Children have the right to remain silent.  The therapist respects a child’s decision not to talk. Children will take the therapeutic experience to where they need to be.  The therapist does not attempt to determine when or how a child should play.  The therapist cannot speed up the process of the child’s growth.  The therapist recognizes this and is patient with the child’s developmental process.