While much of our content about Christian counseling focuses on therapy services for adults, counseling and therapy for children require a specialized approach. Traditional therapeutic methods for adults do not always adequately address children’s developmental needs. Children and adolescents have a different set of needs and communication styles from adult clients. Play therapy for children offers techniques that meet kids where they are and allows professionals to observe and use any indicated interventions. The efficacy of this type of therapy is backed by research and can be the most effective way in which to reach and treat our youngest clients.
What is Play Therapy?
The Association for Play Therapy defines this therapeutic approach as:
“The systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”
In other words, children’s play therapists base their assessment and intervention not on talk, as with adult clients, but on a child’s basic way of interacting with the world, which is play.
The goal of this type of therapy is to help a child cope with or overcome difficulties, either in themselves or in their circumstances, or even in both. And the goal is also to make sure the child is growing and developing as well as possible.
Age three is considered to be the minimum age for a child to enter effective play therapy, and most therapists will integrate or substitute other forms of therapy for adolescents aged 13-17. Play therapy for children can be used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, art therapy, talk therapy, etc.
According to Healthline, during sessions, the play therapist will observe the child, help them to delve into their emotions and any trauma they’ve experienced, teach them healthy mechanisms, and help them change inappropriate behavior, using specific treatment modalities developed by experts.
Several different types of professionals are trained to use this type of therapy, including social workers, behavioral and occupational therapists, and of course, psychologists and psychiatrists. This therapeutic method can be used in outpatient therapy offices as well as hospitals, domestic violence shelters, schools, etc.
Why Play Therapy?
As parents, teachers, or caregivers, when we encounter a troubled child, our first reaction may be to talk with them about their problem. But although some children, particularly older children and adolescents, want to communicate verbally, it is not always the best method for them to work through serious issues.
Unlike adults, who benefit from talk therapy, a child lacks the verbal, cognitive, and emotional development to effectively express herself through words. Younger children are probably unable or unwilling to express the extent of their emotions verbally.
That’s why this type of therapy has been developed as an effective intervention technique for children. And the reason why play is so important in the therapy setting is simple: Play is highly significant to children’s development.
According to Good Therapy:
“Neuroscience has revealed that the majority of the brain’s growth takes place within the first five years of a child’s life, and the act of play contributes significantly toward the development of interconnections between neurons.”
Play is integral for older children as well. And since play is crucial to brain development, it continues to help children communicate and process their emotions throughout their childhood. In play, children uncover their buried emotions and process difficult circumstances.
In concentration camps and ghettos during the Holocaust, children were seen to imitate some of the horrific realities they saw around them. George Eisen, author of Children and Play in the Holocaust, observes: “Rather than play games that would help them escape their misery, these children, ages 2 to 14, often played games that mirrored their surroundings,” including “Gas Chamber” and “Gestapo Agent.”
Eisen continues: “Games in any culture are an important means to understanding reality… Playacting came to provide a naturally reflective mirror of all the sorrows, dismay and absurdity of the children’s brief existence.”
Although this is an extremely sad example, it doesn’t just hold true for children who experience genocide or trauma. For every child, play is a way of learning and making sense of life. Throughout their development, they will naturally gravitate to different types of play, whether to dolls, balls, board games, or role-playing, but in every case, they continue to learn and process life through play.
And the reality that play is a way in which to make sense of the world is what makes play a crucial part of therapy for children. Play therapy gives professionals the opportunity to observe a child, enter her world, “listen” to her, and offer coping mechanisms all while speaking the child’s innate language of play.
According to Psychology Today, this therapeutic method can be used to address many different types of children’s psychological issues, including:
- Academic problems
- Behavioral disorders
- Learning disabilities
- Mental health issues, such as anger, anxiety, or depression
- Social/emotional deficits
- Stressful events, such as illness, abuse, trauma, or family crises
Regardless of the specific issue, the therapist can implement techniques using play to understand and treat the child.
A Brief History
In 1921, psychoanalyst Hermine Hug-Hellmuth began using play therapy with her youngest clients. She offered them toys and other materials to interact with, then observed and assessed their behavior as they played with the materials.
Since then, a series of researchers and psychologists have pioneered new techniques and honed existing ones to create the field of play therapy as we know it today. Two of these researchers include Virginia Axline and Violet Oaklander, who have highly influenced our current therapeutic approaches.
Types of Play Therapy
Through the work of these experts and others, this therapeutic method has developed into two major methods: non-directive play therapy and directive play therapy. According to Play Therapy International, “A skilled practitioner will adopt a mix of both approaches according to circumstances.”
Non-directive play therapy leaves a child free to explore and direct her own play. It is also known as child-centered play therapy. In this approach, the child does not have to talk unless she wants to. Good Therapy describes non-directive play therapy this way:
“Nondirective play therapists are trained to trust that children are capable of directing their own process rather than the therapist imposing their own ideas of what the child needs to do in therapy to work through any challenges they may be facing.
The toys in the playroom are then used by the child to speak to the therapist and communicate their inner thoughts and feelings. Within a play session, and over the course of sessions, themes emerge in the child’s play, giving the therapist insight into the child’s experiences, thoughts, feelings, and interpretations of their world.”
In directive play therapy, the therapist provides more structure, choosing specific materials and guiding the child’s play to help them reenact certain situations and express their feelings. (APA Dictionary of Psychology)
The Theraplay Institute uses some therapy techniques to enhance parent-child relationships, such as games and active parental involvement rather than toys and props. Theraplay is often used for children who are too young for the non-directed method.
Outcomes of Counseling for Children
Does this type of therapy work? Although this therapeutic method has its detractors, it is both effective and evidence-based. It is a growing field for mental health practitioners. As children spend more time in front of screens and less time in free, imaginative play, play therapy can offer an even more vital opportunity for children, parents, and therapists.
The Association for Play Therapy says that meta-analyses of over 100 studies on play therapy outcomes have found positive effects. No matter a child’s age, gender, or the reason for therapy, positive outcomes were similar. The best outcomes were seen in children who had at least one parent taking an active part in the treatment.
If your child is struggling with developmental or emotional problems, consider scheduling an appointment with a professional play therapist.
“Decorating Rocks”, Courtesy of Sigmund, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Building a Tower”, Courtesy of Markus Spiske, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sidewalk Chalk”, Courtesy of Tina Floersch, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bubbles!” Courtesy of Katherine Hanlon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License