So what exactly is play therapy? How is a child sitting with a trained therapist and engaging in play a helpful resource? Landreth and Bratton summarize it well:
“Because children’s language development lags behind their cognitive development, they communicate their awareness of what is happening in their world through their play. In play therapy toys are viewed as the child’s words and play as the child’s language–a language of activity. Play therapy, then, is to children what counseling or psychotherapy is to adults. In play therapy the symbolic function of play is what is so important, providing children with a means of expressing their inner world. Emotionally significant experiences can be expressed more comfortably and safely through the symbolic representation the toys provide. The use of toys enables children to transfer anxieties, fears, fantasies, and guilt to objects rather than people. In the process, children are safe from their own feelings and reactions because play enables children to distance themselves from traumatic events and experiences. Therefore, children are not overwhelmed by their own actions because the act takes place in fantasy. By acting out through play a frightening or traumatic experience or situation symbolically, and perhaps changing or reversing the outcome in the play activity, children move toward an inner resolution, and then they are better able to cope with or adjust to problems…
It can then be said that through the process of play therapy, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and children express outwardly through play what has taken place inwardly. A major function of play in play therapy is the changing of what may be unmanageable in reality to manageable situations through symbolic representation, which provides children opportunities for learning to cope.”
Play Therapy by Garry Landreth & Sue Bratton
The therapist helps a child piece together the unfamiliar, making it familiar, which then allows them to accept it as reality.
In play therapy the unfamiliar becomes familiar in a safe environment, with the goal of being able to communicate in healthy ways outside of the play therapy room. This occurs in directive play therapy when the therapist helps a child piece together the unfamiliar, making it familiar, which then allows them to accept it as reality. Throughout all of play therapy the child learns through experience how to communicate more efficiently and effectively their thoughts and feelings.
It may seem like this approach is based on a whim or a hunch, but it is in fact one of the more widely research based approaches in a therapists’ toolkit.
Landreth and Bratton go on to say that ‘Play therapy is not an approach based on guess, trial and error, or whims of the play therapist at the moment. Play therapy is a well-thought-out, philosophically conceived, developmentally based, and research-supported approach to helping children cope with and overcome the
problems they experience in the process of living their lives.’
Play therapy has been demonstrated to be an effective therapeutic approach for a variety of children’s problems including, but not limited to, the following areas:
- abuse and neglect
- aggression and acting out
- attachment difficulties
- burn victims
- chronic illness
- deaf and physically challenged children
- dissociation and schizophrenia
- emotionally disturbed children
- enuresis and encopresis problems’
- divorce recovery
Play Therapy Research – compiled and summarized by The University of North Texas
Child Centered Play Therapy by Nina Rye
The Power of Play Therapy By Lindsey Getz
Play Therapy- Practice, Issues, and Trends by Linda E. Homeyer and Mary O. Morrison