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Can “Play” Be A Useful Part of Therapy with Kids?

​Many parents have ushered their children into an initial therapy session with me, seen the board games, arts and crafts, and stress relief materials on my office shelves, and nervously questioned “you aren’t just going to play games with my kid, right?”  There is a big misconception about the term “play therapy” as it has been coined in literature.  To some, play therapy is ‘glorified babysitting’; to me and other child therapists, play therapy is an uninhibited look into the world of a child.

Play therapy is defined as an approach to therapy that integrates play in order to foster communication, promote growth and development, and help resolve emotional and behavioral problems.  To understand how play therapy works, it is important to understand child development.  We have all watched toddlers smear food all over their bodies or grab pots and pans out of cabinets just to bang them together, and thought how “silly”, or at times, even “annoying”, their behavior was.  This is because, as adults, we know better.  But, a child discovers the world through observation and exploration, particularly through the use of their five senses. This process of learning about the world through play and observation lasts well into the teenage years. Sometimes as adults we forget that children and adolescents do not understand the world as we do.  Play therapy helps to bridge the gap between the adult’s world and the child’s world.

Because exploration of the world continues into teenage years, play therapy is not only beneficial for young children.  Adolescents and teens benefit too – that is, if you can get them to get past the social stigma that “playing games is for kids”! For teens, play can be used to become aware of and understand their thoughts and feelings in a non-threatening way.  Many adults I have worked with have benefitted from playing with some of the toys on my shelves too!  Play facilitates relaxation and creativity, often helping adults find new solutions to long-standing problems.
Despite benefits for all ages, play therapy is used most often with children between the ages of three and twelve. 

During play therapy, a child’s body language, facial expressions, physical movements, choice of toys, attention to detail, inclusion or exclusion of others in his or her activity, and several other behaviors are observed.  Each of these observations provides information about the child’s thought process and life experiences, helping therapists and parents know where to intervene to help a child with identified challenges.  I mention parents’ involvement in play as it is important for parents to understand how crucial their support of and participation in play therapy is for their children’s growth, both within the therapy setting and in the home environment. Parents are the first and most influential role models for children, as children mimic adult behavior to learn what is acceptable. I often refer to parents as the “surrogate frontal lobe” for their children. 

Recent research suggests the frontal lobe is not fully developed until a person is well into his or her 20’s.  This is significant because the frontal lobe is responsible for planning, organizing, attention, problem solving, decision making, and controlling impulses – all things adults frequently criticize children for not doing well!  For this reason, is it important for parents to model these behaviors for their children.  One great way to model these essential skills is through play – the easiest mode of communication for a child, adolescent or teen to understand!

For more information about play and its use in therapy as a tool for change, I recommend reading Play in Family Therapy by Eliana Gil.  Dr. Gil is a pioneer in the field of child therapy and speaks at length about the benefits of play in therapy in each of her works. She also provides creative ideas to incorporate play in everyday family activities.