What is Play Therapy


Why Play Therapy?

Therapy needs to be fun and engaging for children. If simply talking to a child were enough to resolve emotional distress, adjustment and behaviour issues, there would be no need for child counsellors in the world. A child is more likely to fully integrate the information processed in a therapy session if they are interested, engaged, and having fun.

What Is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is an approach to working with children and youth that integrates toys, puppetry, sand trays, games and art into the treatment of childhood and youth mental health, behaviour or adjustment problems and trauma. 

Why Is Play Therapy Important?

Children learn through play. Plays is a means of expressing feelings, exploring relationships, learning and experiencing self-fulfillment. Just as adults use words to communicate, children use play. For example:  I recently moved to a new home. I have two young daughters, ages 3 and 5. A couple weeks ago I overheard their play. Their play involved the packing of the barbie car so that their barbies could move to their new house. This is just one example of many, as children process their world in the realm of play. An experienced play therapist who is working from a non-directive approach uses these moments of play to reflect the feelings that are being expressed through the play and help children problems solve the issues their stories can present. This type of therapeutic intervention can allow children to express feelings they otherwise may not have the words for, allow them to feel heard, facilitate the cathartic expression of emotions, and lead to resolutions of current problems in their lives. 

Traumatic Play

Children who are traumatized tend to play differently. Their play becomes repetitive and they frequently re-enact traumatic, stressful, or upsetting experiences through their play. A play therapist works slowly to help a children move from traumatic play to creative play using reflection, subtle directiveness and when necessary, playful intervention to lead to resolution of the traumatic reenactment (for example, I may pull out an authority figure (police officer) and exclaim "stop right there!" if a child were frequently re enacting a frightening event (such as witnessing domestic violence, etc.). This can help empower a child to realize they are not helpless, and there are people who can help protect them if necessary, and they can overcome the fear they are experiencing by arresting a perpetrator in their play.

Directive Play Therapy

The approaches described above constitute a non-directive approach to Play Therapy. Directive approaches include providing specific, child friendly interventions for children in session, such as creating a stress ball together, asking them to paint a specific picture, or playing therapeutic board games that promote discussion of emotions, problem solving, and teaching social skills or anger control strategies. Adolescents are more likely to engage in a directive approach as they tend to be uncomfortable playing freely.

Many play therapists utilize a combination of directive and non-directive approaches, depending on the presenting problem and developmental level of the child.

Working with Parents in Play Therapy

A huge part of being a play therapist is working with families to help promote positive behaviour at home as well as in the school. In certain instances, parents attend family sessions that utilize playful interventions to help their children generalize information from therapy/school to home (for example, in severe anxiety cases). Other times, simply coaching a parent in a meeting on behaviour management strategies is enough, or even instructing them on how to provide basic play therapy session as home (called filial therapy). Each case is unique and the best approach is determined through a thorough assessment (typically a minimum of 3 child and 1 parent session).

This video is a wonderful example of the power of play therapy.

Rachel Dundas is a Registered Psychologist in private practice in the Strathmore and Drumheller, Alberta, Area. Rachel has extensive training in play therapy. Contact Rachel today at 403-901-3761 or rdundas@wheatlandcountycounselling.com for a free 15-minute consultation.