The therapeutic power of play for kids

April 26, 2018 | by Ashley Quick, LCPC
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Have you ever watched a child at play? It can be fascinating. Kids have such great imaginations and they often seem to get lost in play in a carefree sort of way.

The act of playing actually has an important purpose in a child’s learning and development. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being of children and youth. Children use play to communicate, more so than speech.

If you think about it, we all benefit from play. Adults play too, by taking part in recreational activities, athletic leagues, and other games. These forms of play help grown-ups connect with others, relieve stress, and boost their mood.

The therapeutic benefits of play for children is the basis for Play Therapy. The Association for Play Therapy (APT) states that play relieves feelings of stress and boredom, connects us to people, stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego.

How does Play Therapy help?

Children don’t have the verbal language yet to express their thoughts and feelings. They often communicate emotional distress through their behavior. For example, a child whose parents are going through a divorce may become anxious or depressed and act out or misbehave at home or at school in an attempt to communicate their feelings.

In Play Therapy, toys are like the child's words and play is the child's language. Play Therapy can help children express what’s troubling them. By using play to communicate their inner thoughts and feelings, a child can learn to cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to problems.

Who provides Play Therapy?

A play therapist is a licensed mental health professional with advanced, specialized training in Play Therapy. Registered Play Therapists (RPT) and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisors (RPT-S) are licensed professionals who have obtained additional education and training in the field of Play Therapy.

Who can benefit from Play Therapy?

Play Therapy can help children ages 3 through 12 years old struggling with:

  • ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)
  • ODD (oppositional defiant disorder)
  • Trauma/Abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Bullying
  • Adoption
  • Poor social skills
  • Anger issues
  • Life transitions
  • Divorce
  • Grief and loss
  • Physical and learning disabilities, chronic illness
  • Everyday relationship difficulties

How does Play Therapy work?

Play Therapy takes place in a clinical Play Therapy setting (such as a Play Therapy room). Each Play Therapy session varies in length but usually lasts about 30 minutes to an hour. Sessions are usually held weekly or bi-weekly.

During play, a child can live out or express her experiences and feelings through the use of dolls/figurines, puppets, a sandbox, drawing/painting, real life, expressive, aggressive, and other toys. She may use play to mirror the challenges she is struggling with in her life. The toys provide a safe distance from her own feelings.

A trained play therapist then interprets the child’s play and the themes that emerge. This gives the therapist insight into the child’s inner world. Using the metaphor of the toys and the child’s play, the therapist can then reflect on the child’s play and identify her emotions. The therapist can help the child understand and re-work the problem to discover alternative ways of coping with her worries.

A play therapist will communicate regularly with the child's family about the progress of treatment and offer ways to support the child between sessions. Sometimes, members of the family may be involved in sessions.

What’s an example?

Let’s say a child is struggling with anxiety. She has a fear of failing and feels as if people are always watching her, waiting for her to make a mistake. The therapist may make a “worry monster” with her. The child can make her worry monster out of anything she wants in the Play Therapy room. She chooses to make it out of play dough and makes a big ball with marbles for eyes.  

By creating the worry monster, the child is able to externalize her fears/worries. At the end of the session, the child is able to destroy the worry monster. She throws the ball of play dough onto the floor several times until the marbles (eyes) fall out. By doing so, she has mastered her fears/worries.

Want to explore Play Therapy for your child?

When kids are able to play out their feelings in a safe environment, healing can happen. Play Therapy helps a child feel heard and seen, and work through difficult emotions.

If you think your child may benefit from Play Therapy, support is available at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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