For over 15 years, I have worked with children and families after they experience trauma, crisis, and mental health challenges. I knew early in my career that I desired to work with children and their families to help them find hope and healing through therapy. What I did not know was how much fun it would be to be a play therapist! I am often asked what I do all day as a play therapist and how play therapy works. My simple answer is from Dr. Garry Landreth’s book, The Art of the Relationship. In his book, Landreth describes how toys are a child's words and play is their language (Landreth, 2012). I have the honor of children allowing me to join them in their worlds where they work out the hard things happening in their lives through toys and play. We play, we have fun, we laugh, but we also do a lot of hard work to help them increase capacity for coping, increase emotional vocabularies, and play out traumas they cannot process alone.
A Child’s World
While my adult clients come to my office, sit on my couch, and tell their stories, my child clients have a special place just for them to explore in the playroom. It is not reasonable to expect a child to join me on my therapy couch in my world; Rather, I want to give them the safe space necessary to create their world where they are comfortable. I want to meet them in their world of play.
In my playroom of specially curated toys, children play out traumas, anxieties, and anger they are experiencing. Children display themes of power and control because they feel so out of control in the chaos of their lives. They are looking for a safe way to express their need for control. Children display nurture, kindness, and gentleness to dolls and stuffed animals they wish someone had displayed to them. Big emotions happen in my playroom; traumatic scenes are played out over and over again. Emotional growth happens in this special room. When I allow my child clients a place to feel safe to process what is happening in their worlds, they feel seen, heard, and know they can feel better.
A Unique Approach
Each child is unique and therefore requires a unique approach to therapy. I am a prescriptive play therapist. This simply means that I prescribe for each of my child clients different interventions and therapeutic techniques based upon their age, personality, and presenting problem. The term play therapy includes many different treatment methods that utilize the power of play. The very basis of all play therapy that I utilize in my practice is Child-Centered Play Therapy principles.
The University of North Texas’ Center for Play Therapy says Child-Centered Play Therapy (CCPT) “…utilizes play, the natural language of children, and therapeutic relationship to provide a safe, consistent therapeutic environment in which a child can experience full acceptance, empathy, and understanding from the counselor and process inner experiences and feelings through play and symbols. In CCPT, a child’s experience within the counseling relationship is the factor that is most healing and meaningful in creating lasting, positive change.” (Center for Play Therapy, University of North Texas, 2021) At the heart of all play therapy modalities is the therapeutic relationship I establish with my clients in their world of play. They need to know I see them, I hear them, and I am with them as they play out, talk about, and give voice to the traumas and hurts in their lives.
Depending on the age of my client, emotional development, and temperament of the child, I will tailor what that child needs with directive interventions as well. This could include helping a child develop a menu of coping skills for when they feel anxious, practicing mindfulness through yoga poses or deep breathing when they feel overwhelmed, or creating a therapeutic book with the client about their trauma. We might play therapeutic games that help with increasing emotional vocabulary. Sometimes, we shoot dart guns at feeling charts to talk about times we felt certain feelings. Each of these prescriptive approaches might seem like just play, but my client’s emotional capacity to cope with stressors is increasing, words are given to scary things that help decrease anxiety, and the child will be able to label their emotions so that they do not overwhelm them.
Does it Work?
The Association for Play Therapy has put together many journal articles and research studies to show the effectiveness of play therapy. Play therapy is a highly researched and empirically validated form of treatment for children. One meta-analysis of 93 controlled outcome studies found play therapy to be highly effective across all gender, ages, and presenting issues for children (Bratton, Ray, Rhine, & Jones, 2005). There is plenty of research to prove that play therapy is effective for treating a wide variety of presenting issues in children.
The Association for Play Therapy (n.d.) outlines that play therapy helps children:
- Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.
- Develop new and creative solutions to problems.
- Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.
- Learn to experience and express emotion.
- Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.
- Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.
- Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.
The power of play is real, and children need specialized therapists that can meet them in their worlds. Children need to know that they are valued, loved, and seen. Play therapy provides the perfect avenue for accomplishing that in therapy.
To Learn More
Being a play therapist is the best job where you get to have fun, see kids' faces brighten and traumas healed through the power of play! I highly encourage any therapist who desires to work with children to learn more about different forms of play therapy. The Association for Play Therapy (www.a4pt.org) has many resources and educational courses available to help therapists learn more about effectively helping children through the power of play.
Association for Play Therapy. (accessed 2021). Play Therapy Makes A Difference. Retrieved from Association for Play Therapy: https://www.a4pt.org/general/c...
Bratton, S., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 376–390.
Center for Play Therapy, University of North Texas. (2021). Center for Play Therapy. Retrieved from University of North Texas: https://cpt.unt.edu/child-cent...
Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play therapy: The art of relationship (3rd ed.). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.