What is Play Therapy?

What is play therapy?  I mean, my kids play at home, my kids play at the park.  Why would I pay you to play with my kid?

A number of kids get an appropriate amount of play time in their lives.  That is awesome!  And a number of kids don’t.  Or the play time they get is with their big brother who makes all the rules and get HIS play needs met.  Or the play time is overshadowed by parents fighting.  Or they are only children and want their parents to play with them, and their parents are tired.  Or the kid is told that homework or sports are far more important than play.  I’m not here to condemn parental decisions.  Each family has their unique goals and operates as an self-sustaining organism in their own right.  My job?  My job as a play therapist is to mindfully be present with your child, to interact with your child, and to model for your child appropriate developmental reactions and responses to stimuli.

“Play therapists are mental health professionals trained specifically to use children’s play as the basis of therapeutic interaction. It is within play—children’s natural form of communication—that the dynamic of therapy occurs. Children’s play is a symbolic expression of their world.”  (Homeyer & Morrison, 2008)

Children of all ages are always watching you, as the parent.  Have you noticed that?  They mirror what we do, because they need a behavioral map.  “So, when daddy is mean to mommy, she leaves the room.”  Next time you argue with your child over something, they walk away from you.  That is frustrating because you are in the middle of talking to them.  AND, it is completing a neural pathway they formed while watching their parents.  As parents, we certainly can’t expect to be “on” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We are all human, and we need to be distracted at times.  Being fully focused on your child all day means you are not focusing on yourself, or your relationships.  It’s not an ideal way to live.  Some of you might have heard the concept of the “Good Enough Mother”(Winicott, 1953).  This is a theory that parents can do a good enough job, ideally 80% of the time.  That doesn’t mean doting on your child, but it does mean being tuned in to them.  100% of the time is just not practical.  

In a play therapy session, I am not the parent, I am not trying to multitask or to expect certain things from your child.  I provide them with a clean slate and my undivided attention for almost an hour.  They get to make the rules.  They get to play out their struggles.  For example, I had a sensory sensitive child who would whisper and whisper before suddenly making a loud sound.  It startled me, and in response to the startle, my job is to name that it shocked me (so the child can form a concept of what that sensory stimulation does to their body in a similar situation) and then to model self-regulation, which might be rocking, self-talk, or even taking deep breaths.  This is just one example in a myriad of possible play scenarios of “how play stimulates the neural structures in the brain and is critical for normal development.” (Homeyer & Morrison, 2008)

I observe children while playing in their world, as many parents fear their children are struggling or aren’t on track, developmentally.  My job is not to diagnose, but to be aware.  If further diagnostic measures are needed I will refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist who is well trained in those measures.  My intention in working with children is not to see them as a diagnosis, though I take them into account.  My intention is to see a whole person, to hear their fears and struggles, and to guide them toward positive self-concept.

And yes, as a parent or a teacher or a friend, of course you are more than qualified to PLAY!  Try to really let go of your world if they invite you into their world.  Put the phone away, turn off the t.v., and dive in.  Hear the monsters in the hall.  Name the inability you have to move when you are scared.  Play Minecraft.  Let them (play) kill you if they need to.  And tell them how incapable you are.  Tell them how helpless you feel in this world they have mastered.  The next time you play, they might actually rescue you.  Because for a moment you got to see how they feel in your world.  They are little, and not for very long.  Pull an Alice in Wonderland and shrink down to their size for a little while.  You might be surprised what you learn.

For further reading about play therapy, read this article (linked above in the text):  Play Therapy: Practices, Issues and Trends