Children and teens seem to be more stressed out and under pressure than at any other time in history. A recent article from the American Psychology Association found that, “from March 2020 to October 2020, mental health–related emergency department visits increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those ages 12 to 17 compared with 2019 emergency department visits.” As a mental health professional, I see firsthand the great need for increasing children's and teens’ access to therapy. But not all therapists or therapies are made for children and their developmental stages. This is where play therapy comes in to meet our teen and child clients’ needs. For over 15 years, I have been practicing principles of play therapy and have seen how they open up a child’s world, their feelings, and their emotions in ways typical talk therapy cannot accomplish.
Learning a New Language
Supervision for play therapy can differ from typical supervision, and is often more experiential. The grandfather of play therapy, Dr. Gary Landreth, is quoted as saying “toys are children’s words and play is their language”. Learning play therapy means learning a new way to communicate, a new language, and submersing yourself in a world of play. Having a very basic understanding of child development is vital too. We spend our first supervision meetings reviewing this information to ensure a therapist has realistic expectations for the child’s ability to engage in therapy.
Second, we learn how to engage in a child’s world and have fun! Building rapport with a child differs from building rapport with an adult and often requires a supervisee to be willing to operate out of their comfort zones. Some common strategies for rapport building are:
- Be eye level with the child or below the child on the floor. Positioning of your body matters.
- Have a soft, warm tone of voice and face. Kids are excellent face and tone readers.
- Do not rush a child. Pay attention to a child’s cues about what they can tolerate in therapy.
- Be fully present, offer tracking responses, and listen well. Kids need to know they are heard.
- Be willing to learn about their interests, such as movies, games, or music.
- Be patient! Building rapport with a child takes time.
Because we are teaching a new language and a new way of engaging clients, I highly recommend engaging in either live observation or video supervision. Having my supervisees watch themselves as they engage in this new world of play therapy allows them to see different areas that they need to improve upon. Often, in play therapy, it can be difficult to see the progress happening in session if you’re not paying attention to small changes that occur. It takes time and patience for children to build rapport and make progress. Having video recordings and case reviews greatly increase the supervisee’s ability to see the progress made by their child and teen clients.
I prefer for therapists to experience the different interventions and activities we review in supervision before they present them to a client. Therefore, supervision sessions could look like us engaging in a sand tray activity, we could be coloring our feelings, or even engaging in child-based mindfulness exercises together. Finding creative ways to engage a child or teen in therapy might be one of my favorite things. We work together to take different interventions and tools used in adult therapy and create play-based interventions to better engage their child clients in therapy.
I also like to use play to check in with my supervisees about how they are processing and growing in play therapy. One top tool I use is to color your feelings. We simply draw a heart on paper and pick four colors to represent four feelings: mad, sad, glad, and afraid. I then ask them to color their heart how they are feeling about their play therapy sessions over the last few weeks. We then process each color, discuss what emotion was elicited within them, and discuss why they felt activated in that way. This simple experiential activity engages their emotions with their professional experiences to help them fully integrate all they are learning.
My attitude and level of engagement as a supervisor also matter. I need to model a playful attitude with my supervisees when it is appropriate. This means I engage in the activities with them, we learn new playful therapeutic games together, and we even laugh together. Having fun builds relationship and a sense of connection. This is a parallel process for my supervisees to see how connection and fun with me can translate into their therapeutic relationship with their child and teen clients.
If you want to learn more about how to become a registered play therapist or learn more about play therapy, visit The Association for Play therapy at: https://www.a4pt.org/
Listed below are also books I would recommend for anyone starting their play therapy supervision journey:
- Play Therapy: The Art of Relationship by Dr. Garry Landreth
- 101 Favorite Play Therapy Techniques edited by Edited by Heidi G. Kaduson and Charles E. Schaefer
- Trauma and Play Therapy: Helping Children Heal by Paris Goodyear-Brown
Abramson, A. (2022, January 1). 2022 Trends Report. Retrieved from American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/monitor/20...
Landreth, G. (2002). Play Therapy: The Art of Relationship. New York: Brunner-Routledge.