It's a common response for people, when they hear the words, 'Play Therapy', to say, 'that must be fun for the children!' This is not the case.
The distinction between Play Therapy and playing is this: Play Therapy has a therapeutic goal, whereas playing doesn't. Children play with their friends or by themselves for the sole purpose of having fun and letting off steam. When a child is referred for Play Therapy, a therapeutic goal is established. This can range from improving self-esteem, learning to cope with anger issues, and developing self-confidence. In order to achieve their goal, children in Play Therapy go on an emotional journey.
This journey has its ups and downs, and over the course of the 12 weeks of Play Therapy (the minimum period), they will dip in and out of their own emotional process. Research has shown that only 8% of children talk about their problems, mostly they express their feelings through the play.
When a child enters the Play Therapy room for the first time, they can choose to play with any of the toys: puppets, sand tray, musical instruments, dressing up clothes, paints, crayons, clay. In non-directive play, the therapist respects the child's choice, and plays along with them, to build up rapport, trust, and attachment. Once a strong attachment has been formed, the therapeutic work is well under way.
I have seen children change over the course of 12 weeks from being silent and scared to being expressively engaged; from showing no facial emotions to smiling with good eye contact. The irony is that by the end of the 12 weeks, the child may be able to enjoy life more because they have been able to express their feelings in a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment.
In Play Therapy children learn to:
Adults often find this the toughest thing to do, especially when a battle of wills is going on between adult and child. By being non-judgmental during the sessions the child learns to accept all parts of themselves.
Children learn to connect boundaries with keeping their toys, and through the toys themselves, safe, which is an important lesson for them to learn.
Understand their feelings
Young children struggle to express their feelings verbally, and talking metaphorically, through the mediums of the play therapy kit, help children to understand feelings in their own natural language of play.
Express their emotions safely
Ripping paper and banging the drum are just two examples of how children learn to use the play therapy kit to express their emotions safely.
Be responsible for their actions
My job is to keep the child safe at all times, and to allow them to express themselves with as few limits as possible. If a toy falls off the table because it was too close to the edge, the child learns to 'pull it back' to keep it safe.
Be creative in confronting problems
If a child is struggling with loss, either through parents divorcing, or through death, it is easier for them to confront their grief through role play using puppets or dolls, and playing games. Through doing so they will eventually comes to terms with their loss and accept the life changes.
Establish self-control and self-direction
In the early stages a child may regress emotionally in order to catch up on a stage they missed out. This may involve being the baby in the sessions so they can establish their own levels of comfort.They will need the play therapist to mirror and reflect what they are doing, and when they no longer need this, it is usually a sign that they have become able to self-direct their own play. This usually indicates that the end of the play therapy is approaching.
Amanda Seyderhelm practices at The Broad Street Practice, Stamford, and works at Great Ormond Street Hospital as a Team Leader of The Craft Station.