It’s National Play Therapy Week, an opportunity for counselors to shine a light on an important tool for therapy in children. But the benefits of play extend past the therapy session.
“Play therapy is the idea play is the language of children and that therapists, to be most effective, need to speak that language,” said C.J. Quick, co-owner and outpatient therapist at Brighter Futures Counseling in Elizabethtown.
“Play lets children discuss important issues using words and concepts they understand, rather than creating the mental obstacle of them trying to interpret adult language.”
As an example, she said instead of talking to a child directly about a divorce, a therapist can use puppets where the child’s puppet talks about their feelings about the situation.
“The child can talk about how the animals act and feel without directly discussing their situation, which can be uncomfortable and intimidating, especially at first,” Quick said. “Play is a way of providing psychological distance from the child’s problems while still addressing the problems.”
The Association for Play Therapy defines the practices 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.”
Quick said an importance is placed on the relationship between the child and therapist in play therapy.
“The therapist works to create a safe and judgment-free space where the therapist can hold the child’s stories,” she said. “A child has the freedom to play out whatever is needed and talk about anything without judgment.”
Quick said in those situations the safer and more comfortable a child feels with a therapist, the more likely they will open up and express themselves.
There are many ways play therapy is helpful in childhood issues.
“It is particularly helpful for children who have experienced trauma and attachment concerns,” she said. “We also utilize play therapy to help with depression, anxiety, anger, big changes and adjustments such as the death of a loved one, significant moves or changes, family divorce, deployment for a parent and changes in family.”
It also is helpful for children with ADHD and other regulatory concerns, Quick said.
“The benefits of play therapy have been shown throughout the gambit of childhood mental health issues,” she said. “It is used in both individual therapy with a child but also in family therapy and even group therapy.”
Quick said some therapists even use play therapy with adults.
Though beneficial in therapy, play is not as common in modern life with the advent of less interactive media. But Quick said play is vital to brain development.
“Play provides the stimulus needed to connect and build brain pathways,” she said. “Children explore, problem solve and learn as they play.”
Play can build imagination and promote autonomy and self-confidence, she said.
She quoted Fred Rogers to stress the importance of play in a child’s life.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood,” the children’s television legend said.
It is through play that children learn how to overcome obstacles in life and regulate their emotions, Quick said.
“Play allows a child to manage choices and be spontaneous,” she said. “Play is also the building block of early literacy – children explore sounds and words as they play and attach names to items.”
Society’s focus on electronics and busy lifestyles have lead to decreased play in life, she said.
“We think being involved in three sports for young children is more important than free play, and while organized activities for children are important, we have to make time for free play,” she said. “Children learn much more through play than through tablets — yes, even educational games.”
In a busy world, she said, it might be beneficial to schedule free play into the day.
Even though play is child centered, it’s important for the adult to be a part of play in a child’s life.
“When an adult is active in a child’s play it sends very important messages — it says to a child, ‘You’re important, what you’re doing is important, I find you fascinating and smart and wonderful and I want to be involved,’” Quick said “This in turn builds self-confidence and an inner assurance that you are loved and accepted, allowing a child to feel more ready to conquer the world, work hard in school and make friends.”