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Children enjoy all different kinds of play.  Both active and quiet play serve purposes in children’s social and cognitive development.  Running around outdoors or on a playground provides exercise to kids and a healthy outlet for their boundless energy.  Quiet play, on the other hand, develops fine motor skills and cognitive learning.  That much is common knowledge in the modern era, but fewer people may realize how play can function as a method of healing as well.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is defined as a method of counseling that utilizes play as a means of communication with children that attempts to resolve psychological challenges.  It has been theorized that play therapy benefits social integrations, emotional modulation, and trauma recovery as well as standard growth and development.

How Does it Work?

Trained therapists use specific toys and activities to help children work through problems or issues and have demonstrated positive correlations in a child’s ability to feel positive emotions, strengthen attachments to their therapist, and improve verbal or nonverbal communication of feelings.

Play therapy techniques are also frequently used as a diagnostic tool.  If a child is being treated for antisocial behavior, the therapist will begin the sessions by letting a child play with toys that reflect real-life things or situations, such as dolls, stuffed animals, or play-houses.  They will then observe the way the child interacts with their play therapy toys, termed Children’s Play Therapy Instruments (CPTI) by the Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research.  Based on how the child uses or abuses the CPTI, the therapist can assess that behavior as an indicator for potential root causes of the child’s problematic tendencies.  

Toys can also be used by therapists as a mean to initiate difficult conversation by displacing the subject from the child to the toy.  This method became so commonplace that it became the subject of several famous movie scenes, and later many parodies.

Other forms of play therapy have professionals simply observing the way kids play in an free-form environment.  The idea is to simulate the child’s normal play environment to let them behave as they naturally would.  The therapist will use this opportunity to identify problems and then work with the child to understand and resolve their issues.

Some of these exercises are intended to develop communication skills, ways to express feelings, and adjustments to typical responses and behaviors.

Directive vs. Nondirective

Therapists often utilize two different types of play therapy.  One is more hands-on, the other leaves room for the child to set the course.  It is up to parents and professionals to decide which play therapy techniques are the most appropriate for the specific child being treated.

The directive approach begins with the therapist or counselor establishing goals for the child during play.  For example, if a child is struggling with anger issues, a therapist may give that child a dollhouse, establish a conflict between the dolls, and encourage him or her to work through the conflict without resorting to anger or violence.  By displacing the conflict onto the dolls, the child is able to approach familiar situations with a level of personal detachment that allows them to develop more rational solutions.

The nondirective approach assume that if a child if left to play openly, their issues will eventually surface on their own.  Through this method, the therapist observes the child’s natural course of play, only intervening when a destructive behavior is identified.  Even then, the therapist’s only role is to subtly apply rules or limitations.  The more unhealthy behaviors the child exhibits, the more rules are applied to play.  The more the child begins to act appropriately, the more the therapist loosens the figurative leash and allows the child more freedom.

Why Does it Work?

Children are naturally drawn to toys.  It stimulates their sense and drive for exploration, creativity, and expression.  Play is a primary mode

At the same time, children exhibit less capacity for many key processes in adult psychotherapy such as rationalization and self-reflection.  It’s not their fault.  Pre-adolescent patients simply haven’t developed those areas of their brains yet.  By exchanging those cognitive skills with skillsets that children are already comfortable engaging, the therapist eliminates one of the biggest hurdles in acclimating the child into a therapeutic environment.

In short, by engaging a child with toys, you offer them a comfortable bridge into what might otherwise be an uncomfortable situation.  

From the child’s perspective, it’s just entertainment, but play therapy training actually hones efficiency, self-esteem, coping mechanism, communication strategies, problem-solving skills, self-expression, and even self-actualization.

Child play therapy has also helped children who struggle with verbal communication skills.  Often, children who experience traumatic thoughts or feelings struggle most to articulate them.  By engaging with a toy, a child can learn to communicate their troubles physically rather than verbally.

The benefits of play therapy are both demonstrable and wide-reaching, but don’t take our word alone for it.  Here are a number of other great educational resources about kids’ play therapy.