Why play? Parents hear the term ‘play therapy’ as a recommendation from physicians and mental health professionals all the time…but how can play be therapeutic?
Parents, this is an incredibly appropriate question to ask your provider and it makes sense that you want to know how investing time and money to see your little one play in a therapy room is going to benefit your child and your family.
Allow me a few minutes to break it down for you: there are many different styles of play therapy and therapists often choose what is most appropriate based on your child’s age, stage of development, and the concerns/goals you have as a family. Some involve directive work (therapist providing child with structured activities to target specific goals) and some nondirective (child chooses the game/activity and therapist rolls with it), however within these two categories is a vast spectrum of different styles and interventions. I want to focus here on one of the most well-known of the nondirective therapy modalities, or Child-Centered Play Therapy, as I often find this modality feels elusive and mysterious to parents. It is typically used with children between the ages of 3-7 but can be used along with other modalities or by itself for kids up to age 11.
Ok, here we go: Child Centered Play Therapy [CCPT}. Toys are very carefully chosen for the play space- in the therapy rooms you’ll often see dolls, doll houses, sand trays, doctor’s kits, costumes, swords, toy kitchens, superhero and animal figurines, the works! Toys like these are chosen for the play space to encourage children to process and project different themes. Aside from safety boundaries that the therapist will set if needed, kids are free to use whichever toys they want in whatever way they desire during the session. Children use toys and games to mirror the experiences they are having in their own worlds and make sense of the experiences they are having; play is the language that children use to process. Allowing kids to lead their own play is similar to allowing adults to bring up their own topics to work on in a therapy session. In CCPT, children direct their sessions and trained therapists know how to intervene to meet therapeutic goals.
The therapist’s job within this play space, is to provide consistent empathetic reflections in order to build self-awareness, confidence, and understanding in the child. For example, I might have a 5-year-old child who uses the doctor’s kit to check my heartbeat and pretend to be the physician, whose mom is undergoing cancer treatment. I might reflect “You’re curious about the stethoscope- you see this being used for mommy and sometimes it feels scary. You are using it to check my heartbeat and keep me healthy. It feels good to be the one holding the stethoscope.”
Reflections and interactions like these offer the child insight and awareness into their own thoughts and feelings, and helps the child connect their behaviors with the sensations and feelings they experience by providing language and narrative to describe it. The reflections are non-judgemental and affirm for the child that they are safe to process and express emotions. Child-centered play therapists offer very little direction and typically rarely even answer questions asked by the child during playtime, in order to support the child to find the solutions themselves and build regulation skills by tuning into their own bodies. Children use the nondirective therapy play space to explore, process distressing emotions, and resolve their issues at their own pace. They learn to recognize, name, and overcome distress through their play and the therapist’s reflections.
What might feel confusing is that Child-Centered Play Therapy does not include the therapist bringing up topics for discussion…which may seem counterintuitive given that so much can happen at home, school, etc. In the play space, the child’s mind is the primary driver of the work and the therapist is there to follow where the child’s brain needs to be. Children often come into the space with an idea of what they want to do and where they want to take the play that day. Talk to your therapist about what type of play they might find appropriate for your child based on their needs- it is such a fun world to be a part of and offers such a shift in your child’s perspective, confidence, and ability for self-regulation!