By: Katie Clark, LPC, NCC
A play therapist uses a unique skill set to connect with children through a child’s symbolic language of self-expression: play. For young children. play is developmentally and fundamentally their language to articulate and process through feelings and difficulties. It allows them to connect and achieve growth in a profound way that classic talk therapy would not be able to provide. Children communicate through play in such an amazing way; it allows and welcomes a self-healing process in which they can engage.
The play therapist provides the space where an important therapeutic relationship can be established by communicating with them through the medium which they are most comfortable. Sometimes feelings and experiences may be too overwhelming or difficult to articulate with words for a child, but they can safely communicate them through self-chosen toys.
Here’s an example of the power of play and how differently children versus adults process through experiences. A family that I worked with was in a significant car accident. The parents processed the experience of the event by verbalizing details, rehashing emotions that they experienced, and revisiting their experiences of shock and fear. The child who suffered through the same car accident almost never talked about it, but through his play would crash cars into each other, ram them into walls, and have ambulances come take care of the people saying to them, “Everything is going to be okay! We’ve got you now.” Reenacting the accident this way was a part of his healing process; it was how he needed to communicate what he had experienced.
In play therapy, a child is not seen as a problem that needs to be analyzed, but as a whole person to be related to and understood by a play therapist. It is not uncommon for young children to stay silent about what might be troubling them at home, at school, or other areas of their life. Instead, sometimes they express themselves through acting out in ways that are not ideal, such as behavioral issues at home or school.
Through play therapy, we can naturally provide a space to support them as they sort through their emotions. Research shows that play therapy is highly effective for children that have had problems with disruptive behaviors at home or school, relationship issues, mood, anxiety, attention concerns, anger, grief/loss, social skills, and self esteem.
Most often play therapy is a modality that is practiced with children between the ages of three and twelve years old, however it can be beneficial at any age. While play therapy involves only the child and the therapist, parents are a fundamental part of the process. Play therapists regularly connect with parents to establish a team of support to assist with the work that the child is doing through their therapeutic space.
The power of play is undeniable and continues to grow in empirical evidence. Gary Landreth said it best: “Birds fly, fish swim, and children play.”
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