Harnessing the Power of Play

Written by Joy Simmonds

Play therapy helps kids communicate their troubles.

Harnessing the Power of Play

Casey, six years old, comes cautiously through the playroom door and gazes at the toys and equipment within. Tentatively touching one toy and then another, her eyes come to light on the sand tray. She moves towards it and begins burying her hands deep into the sand. Looking into the shelf of miniatures, she carefully selects what she wants and begins building a world. She lays trees and rocks along the sides of the tray, arranges shells in a circle, and places two birds and a kitten in the centre.

June, the play therapist, sits quietly observing – attuned and attentive. When Casey has finished, June asks her to “tell me about your world”. Casey identifies herself as the kitten, the birds as her parents. She begins to talk about missing her father and wishing he would come back home to live with her and her mother again. With this opening, the therapeutic relationship between Casey and June has begun.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” When Plato said this over 2,000 years ago he was really on to something. You can imagine him sizing up Socrates as they tossed marbles in the sand. Fast forward to the start of the 20th century and you find the first child therapists down on the floor using the power of play to help troubled kids. Since then an extensive body of literature has proven the effectiveness of play therapy in working with children and adolescents.

What is play therapy?

“Toys are like words to children,” says Gary Landreth, director of the Texas Center for Play Therapy. And play is the child’s language. Through their play, children tell us what is happening in their world. Play therapy gives a child the space to ‘play out’ feelings and problems just as, in adult therapy, an individual ‘talks out’ his or her difficulties. As they play, the child and therapist develop a deep relationship that is at the core of the therapeutic process. Play is the essential element in the child’s exploration of his or her life and is also the means for connecting deeply with another person.

As parents, we cherish our children and do all we can to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. But despite our best efforts, children may suffer from emotional or social challenges brought on by grief and loss, divorce/separation, trauma, school problems, illness, or unexplained anxiety and fear. When your love and support are not enough, you may want to consider professional help in the form of play therapy.

How does it work?

In the playroom, children have a chance to play out their feelings, explore relationships, describe experiences, and express wishes. In an atmosphere of total acceptance and respect, they can discover the strength that lies within and the capacity to express themselves and solve their own problems.

Most therapists draw from a range of approaches, depending on their own personalities, strengths and interests. The first few play therapy sessions focus on building a relationship with the child, and observing and assessing strengths and difficulties. Once a plan is in place, therapy may include, along with open-ended play, familiar activities using toys, board games, stories, crafts and role-playing structured to help the child communicate his or her worries and develop coping strategies.

Knowing that a child’s healthy adjustment depends on family relationships, most play therapists work closely with parents, providing regular feedback and sometimes including them in play sessions with their children.

What do I look for in a child therapist?

The single most important element in the therapeutic process is the personal rapport or empathy that develops between therapist and child. Look for someone who can engage with your child, listen attentively, and communicate both verbally and non-verbally a total acceptance of and respect for who they are. While you want the focus to be on your child, it is advisable to find someone with whom you are also comfortable and who invites your participation in the process. Along with practical experience, formal training in social work, psychology, child development or a related discipline as well as play therapy is an asset.

For more information about play therapy, visit the Canadian Association of Child and Play Therapy (CACPT); www.cacpt.com.

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About the Author

Joy Simmonds

Joy Simmonds, MEd., BSW, RSW, is a psychotherapist working with children, adults and families in Peterborough; joy.simmonds@sympatico.ca.

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