Play Therapy: How creative play can help with healing
Anyone who has ever attended a person-centred counselling session will understand what I mean by feeling the safety of a non-judgmental space, somewhere you feel comfortable enough to allow yourself to say whatever is on your mind and still feel accepted.
In Play Therapy, children experience this same feeling by being in a room with a therapist who is allowing them to lead the session. They do not necessarily ever have to speak in a session, yet they can express their feelings through their play. Dr. Gary Landreth, a leading play therapist in the US says “In Play Therapy, toys are like the child’s words and play is the child’s language”.
When children attend play therapy they will usually find it quite different to anything they have experienced before. They will have 45 minutes of undivided attention where they can completely be themselves and become engrossed in their play. Often, once a child has established trust in the therapist, they will start to express some of their difficulties in their play. Through reflecting back the emotions, the therapist observes she can help the child to process what they are experiencing. The therapist will also keep track of themes that are emerging in the play to help her understand the difficulties the child is experiencing.
In my therapy practice, when I receive a phone call from a parent I arrange a consultation meeting. The meeting takes place in my playroom where the parent can see the types of toys and other mediums, such as arts and crafts, that are available. We decide in this meeting if play therapy is the right intervention for the child at this moment in time. The child will attend play therapy on a weekly basis for a minimum of 10 weeks. At six weeks a review meeting will be held with the parents. While the content of the sessions will be kept confidential to respect the child, in a similar way to the content of an adult counselling session, I will help the parents with difficulties they are experiencing at home, for example helping to manage behaviours. Often I will be in touch with the school, with tips they can use during the school day.
Play Therapy can benefit a wide range of difficulties, for example it can help:
- Children who are experiencing behavioural difficulties overcome their aggression. They can use the space to let out this aggression in a more appropriate way, through play or express feelings at a deeper level that have been causing the aggression.
- Children with anxiety difficulties- through having a space to be themselves their self-esteem and confidence grows allowing them to be stronger in dealing with their fears. Sometimes they may discover techniques that they enjoy within the playroom such as relaxation or creative visualisations that help them address their anxieties.
- Children dealing with the bereavement of a close family member can explore their emotions surrounding this without feeling any pressure to speak about it.
- Children with learning disabilities often grow in confidence when given the opportunity to lead play sessions in this way. Giving them a space where their disability is not focused on and they can fully be themselves gives them an opportunity to become more creative and confident.
- Children with Autism build their social skills and play skills through connecting with the therapist in the playroom.
- Children with ADHD may use the space to channel their energies into play activities, to discover healthier ways of dealing with their difficulties. For example they may use clay, drama or musical instruments to express emotions.
- Children who have experienced a traumatic event in their lives can explore their scary feelings about this within the safe space provided.
Children attend play therapy for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes a child will attend for only 10 weeks with improvements evident or a child may continue attending for a few years, depending on the level of difficulty. Play Therapy gives children an opportunity to overcome their emotional difficulties so that they can gain the best benefits from their social and educational surroundings.
Linsey McNelis, BA Hons, HDip Psych, PG Dip, is an accredited play therapist. She runs Play Therapy Galway, offering non-directive Play Therapy, i.e. child-led therapy for 3-18 year-old; as well as Baby Bonding, Parent Child Attachment Play (PCAP) and Filial Play - relationship building programs for parents based on play. Workshops are also offered for parents and teachers.