Sometimes a child will start to develop patterns of behaviour that may be causing disruption to their lives and to the lives of those around them. Parents, carers and teachers may recognise signs such as excessive anger, fear or worry that may be affecting a child's development and their ability to get along with their family and friends at school.
While adults experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties can seek help in the form talking therapies, children tend to find this therapeutic setting threatening and almost like an interrogation. As a result, play therapy is used to help children communicate at their own level and at their own pace. This enables them to understand confused feelings and upsetting experiences that they haven't yet had a chance to process.
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What is play therapy?
Play therapy is a type of therapy that helps children to express themselves, explore their thoughts and feelings, and make sense of their life experiences. Play is a natural activity of learning, exploration and communication for children, and so the medium is considered highly effective for helping children to 'play out' what they may find difficult to put into words.
Play therapists will work with children of all ages in a safe and trusting environment to help shift perspectives of difficult experiences and increase self-esteem and confidence. They may work as part of a team or independently, and may suggest a referral for additional professional support as part of therapy. The main aim of a play therapist is to equip children with adaptive behaviours and better coping mechanisms for everyday life. This is to help them develop a more positive view of their place in the world.
What can play therapy help with?
Play is incredibly important for a child's development - helping to shape key social, creative, language, emotional, cognitive and physical processes. As a result, play therapy can help children in a variety of ways, although exactly how will depend greatly on the individual needs of each child. The approach is considered particularly important for children who may struggle to express themselves verbally, although generally it can help children of all abilities, cultures and genders.
Significantly, play therapy offers children a safe and comfortable space in which they can be themselves and have the emotional support to express their feelings freely. These feelings can then be explored and contained in a healthy way with the help of a play therapist in order to promote resilience and confidence within each child.
Some of the common types of problems play therapists deal with include:
- Children who have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD).
- Children who are dealing with parental separation, divorce or conflict.
- Children who have witnessed domestic violence.
- Children who are in hospital.
- Traumatised children who have experienced sexual, emotional or physical abuse.
- Children in care - adoption and fostering.
- Children dealing with stressful life experiences such as loss, illness or death of a loved one.
- Children who have experienced a serious accident or disaster.
What does play therapy involve?
Play therapy involves a series of sessions - usually 30 to 45 minutes long - where a therapist will meet with a child to focus solely on their needs and the medium of play. Some therapists may have experience working with siblings or groups of children but one-to-one sessions tend to be the most common form of play therapy.
The first session will typically involve an assessment, in which the child's parent or carer talks to the therapist about their concerns. The therapist will analyse the child's strengths and difficulties, as well as their history in order to identify what stresses the child has been through so they can help them make sense of it. Information may also be required from the child's school and other significant adults in their lives.
Future sessions will usually be held weekly at the same place and time - either at the child's home, school or at a clinic. This consistency helps to build a trusting relationship between the therapist and child, and thus improves the chances of effective treatment. If sessions are missed it may disrupt a child's progress.
What to expect in a session
Sessions involve a large selection of play materials provided by the play therapist. These resources will consist of toys like small figures and animals, sand and water, musical instruments, dressing up props, puppets, clay, books and art and craft materials. Rather than encouraging the child to use verbal explanations of what is troubling them, the therapist will help them to express difficult thoughts and feelings through the metaphors of play. This will involve using a range of techniques that help children to become aware of what they are feeling and provide opportunities for them to express these. Awareness is an important part of play therapy because without awareness change cannot take place.
Some of the techniques used in play therapy are:
- creative visualisation
- therapeutic storytelling
- role play
- dance and movement
For this process to be effective, the therapist must work on building a strong therapeutic relationship with the child. It is important that children feel comfortable, safe and respected in play therapy so that they can play confidently and feel at ease sharing their intimate feelings. It is also crucial that the child understands the therapist is accepting of them and supportive throughout the whole process. Ultimately this positive relationship will foster the necessary corrective experience needed to promote cognitive development and help children to resolve inner conflicts and develop new patterns of behaviour and thinking.
How long is play therapy needed?
The number of play therapy sessions required will depend on the child and their individual needs. Generally, play therapy is a short-term intervention (i.e. 12 sessions or less) but in some cases children will require extended treatment. Some therapists will work with children for several years.
What are the benefits of play therapy?
Ultimately, play therapy helps to facilitate healing and the development of new patterns of behaviour and thinking that enables children to be more resilient in everyday life. By helping to free children from negative experiences and feelings that block their learning and development, play therapy allows them to see their world in a more positive light.
Some of the specific benefits children can gain from play therapy include:
- Reduced anxiety about traumatic events.
- Improved confidence and a sense of competence.
- Better able to form healthy bonds in relationships.
- Improved ability to trust themselves and others.
- Enhanced creativity and playfulness.
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What our experts say
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Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist & Author (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,FRSA,MBPsS)26th April, 2015
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Sue Brown (Registered MBACP)30th July, 2014