In many cases, when people think of psychotherapy for children, they think of the term “play therapy.” However, what this term means is often a mystery. What is play therapy? What is involved? How does it differ from just a therapist and child playing with a toy or game?
Play therapy is an intervention which aids a child’s growth and development by using play as a tool to modify behavior and to learn problem-solving strategies. Just as adults use verbal expression, children use play as a form of communication and problem-solving. When a child has difficulty understanding a situation, they often use play to enact various scenarios as a way of thinking about the problem. By working with a child in his or her “language,” a therapist can better engage the child, which makes therapy more effective.
A session of play therapy is typically 30-45 minutes in duration. It can be conducted in individual, group, or family settings. Play therapy can be practiced in two varying manners: non-directive play therapy and directive play therapy.
Non-directive play therapy is when the child takes the lead in directing the course and direction of play. The child is given the choice of what toy or game to play with, and the manner in which the play takes place. This method is considered non-intrusive, and allows children the comfort and freedom to express themselves in a manner of their choosing. The therapist pays close attention to the emotions and behaviors of the child, and only sets limits on play if necessary. The therapist can then examine the child’s behavior to understand the underlying cause(s) of difficulties and discuss possible courses of action with the parents.
Directive play therapy is when the therapist directs the playing by either choosing the toy/game and/or choosing the manner with which the toy is played (such as giving cues as to how to engage in playing with a doll). This allows the therapist to address issues that are considered pressing and pertinent. Directing the play also allows the therapist to teach children important social and coping skills. Group play therapy is integral for allowing children the chance to learn and practice various social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, and understanding another’s viewpoint.
One common misconception about play therapy is that a child should only engage in it if there has already been a problem, trauma, or maladaptive behavior. This is not the case. Play therapy can be utilized by any child to learn more adaptive social skills and to learn a variety of coping skills that can be utilized in a multitude of situations. By engaging in play therapy, children learn various problem-solving skills in a controlled, safe environment, which can lead to healthier and more well-adjusted lives.