Some people give me a quizzical look when I say I’m a play therapist in training. Play Therapy? Is that what I think it is? Do you play with kids? That is your actual job? The short answer: yes. As we love to advocate: our job is child’s play. Literally and metaphorically.
Now, the long answer. Charles Schaefer, known in the play therapy community as ¨The Father of Play Therapy¨, defines play therapy as: ¨a treatment approach in which licensed professionals use the natural benefits of play to improve the mental health of children¨.
It is an evidence-based approach which has proven to be effective for children going through emotional difficulties. But, what exactly does a play therapist do? And, more important, why is play therapy so important?
Words are to adults what play is to children
Play is the natural way children communicate with the world. Therefore, making it their quintessential vessel of metaphor-making. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, play gives us total access into a child’s inner world. It is through this tool that we know what emotional difficulties the child is going through. Its universal quality makes this an appealing tool which therapists and other child specialists can use to build trust with the child.
Play therapy gives therapists a privileged opportunity to tap into a child’s psyche, which might not be possible to access through words. In this type of therapy, the child has the opportunity to use a variety of toys in order to work through different situations. Toys give us – as psychologists – an advantage that words can’t seem to reach.
The play therapist has the distinct responsibility to provide a safe environment in which the child feels confident enough to express her/his inner world. It is thanks to this therapeutic relationship that most of the inner changes occur.
Play therapy has invaluable therapeutic powers
According to Schaefer & Drewes (2014), ¨the therapeutic powers of play refer to the specific change agents in which play initiates, facilitates, or strengthens their therapeutic effect.¨
Some of the powers of play therapy include:
- Promotes self-expression
- Provides opportunities for direct (and indirect) teaching
- Can be a cathartic experience
- Helps with stress management
- Enhances social relationships
- Increases personal strengths, such as resiliency, self-regulation and self-esteem
Who can benefit from play therapy?
Fortunately, research has shown that play therapy can be beneficial and enlightening for teens and adults. Making this something universally appealing for people of all ages. So, in simpler words, anyone can benefit from play therapy!
Just as you would recommend therapy for someone who is going through a difficult moment, or is preparing for a big change, or simply wants to know herself better, the same applies for play therapy. If a child is going through a tough time in school, is going through a difficult transition, or has an emotional need – he/she can benefit from this kind of therapy.
Remember that therapy is nothing to feel ashamed for. It is a powerful tool that can lead to an amazing growth experience. Seeking out for help is courageous and tending to your child’s mental health is vital. Mental health can be as much preventive as it is corrective.
Schaefer, C. E., & Drewes, A. A. (2014). The therapeutic powers of play: 20 core agents of change. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.