The concept of incorporating play into therapy sessions has been around since the early days of Sigmund Freud. Although play therapy is certainly not a ‘new’ concept, its presence has certainly grown remarkably within the last thirty years. In 1982, the Association for Play Therapy (APT) was established; this marked not only the desire to promote the advancement of play therapy, but also to acknowledge the extensive growth of play therapy (Association for Play Therapy, 2016). More recently, well-known theorists and play therapists have
emerged onto the psychotherapy scene with astounding presence. Play therapy is becoming the modality of choice among practitioners, clinicians and therapists working with young children, teens, and even adults. Throughout this article, common myths and misconceptions will be discussed and eradicated to promote and encourage a more global understanding of play therapy.
"What do you do in session, just play?"
As a therapist who regularly practices play therapy, I often hear parents say things like, “What do you do in there, just play?” To the untrained eye, that may be exactly what play therapy looks like. However, the implementation, conceptualization and practice of play therapy is much more complex and involved.
Terry Kottman (2011) defines play therapy as “an approach to counseling young children in which the counselor uses toys, art supplies, games and other play media to communicate with clients using the ‘language’ of children- the language of play” (p. 3). Children have a much more limited ability to verbalize their thoughts and feelings in order to tell someone about their problems. They tend to lack the introspective and interactional skills required to take full advantage of a ‘talk therapy session’ (Kottman, 2011, p.4). Thus, children naturally gravitate towards play as a comfortable, functional form of communication.
In play therapy, the play itself can be a means for establishing rapport and strengthening the therapeutic relationship with children. It often helps therapists understand children and their interactions and relationships; taking note of patterns, themes and how the child sees the world through play can be very helpful in the progression of treatment. Play can help children reveal feelings that they have not been able to verbalize; this often feels safer and less intrusive to the child. Play can also assist the client in constructively acting out feelings of anxiety, frustration, tension or anger; in addition to teaching socialization skills, and providing an environment in which children can test limits, gain insight about their own behavior and motivation, explore alternatives and learn about consequences (Thompson & Henderson, 2006).
Some common, basic techniques I like to use in the play room include: tracking (describing in a literal, noninterpretive way what is happening in the playroom by describing either what the child is doing or what the play objects are doing) (Kottman 2011), restating content (paraphrasing what the child has just said), reflecting feelings (making guesses about the children’s feelings in the process of play therapy), and metacommunication (communicating about the communication). These basic skills serve as a pathway of sorts that allow the therapist to build rapport and strengthen the therapeutic relationship with the child before moving onto challenging the child’s beliefs and/or behaviors to elicit change.
"Therapy shouldn’t be fun"
Something else that I hear quite often from parents is, “Therapy shouldn’t be fun. They should be coming in to work, not to play.” I get it. When most people think of ‘traditional’ therapy, they think of coming in, laying on a couch, and spilling their soul to someone with glasses, a tweed jacket and a notepad. Therapy shouldn’t be ‘fun and games,’ it should be work! But that’s the beauty of play therapy- it can be fun, rewarding AND work. The benefits of play therapy are endless. Some of the more common benefits include increased self-expression, improved self-esteem and self-worth, self-control, mastering fears, relationship enhancement, increased empathy, creative problem-solving and attachment formation (Kottman, 2011, p.4). Most kiddos aren’t going to be invested in the process of play therapy if it isn’t somewhat fun.
According to Gary Landreth (2002), toys and play materials used in play therapy should help to facilitate a wide range of emotional and creative expression by children. They should also engage children and speak to their interests, in addition to being able to provide mastery experiences in which children can experience success. Kottman (2011) suggests toys that cover a wide array of categories; family/nurturing toys, scary toys, aggressive toys, expressive toys, and pretend/fantasy toys (p. 90-91).
"Can’t I just play with them at home?"
As stated earlier, play therapy is much more than just simply playing with your child. However, parent collaboration and participation is vital to a child’s success. I strive to incorporate parents into sessions as much as I can throughout the therapy process when it becomes clinically appropriate. Educating caretakers on the therapeutic techniques and their functions becomes necessary to transfer the skills the child is learning in therapy into the home setting, to eventually be able to phase therapy out of the child’s life.
For more information on play therapy, check out these websites:
Iowa Association for Play Therapy: https://iowaa4pt.org/
Association for Play Therapy: http://www.a4pt.org/
Terry Kottman- The Encouragement Zone: www.encouragementzone.com/
Kottman, T. (2011). Play therapy: basics and beyond. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Association for Play Therapy. (2016). Retrieved April, 2017, from http://www.a4pt.org/
About the author- Katie Zalesky MA, TLMFT
As a marriage and family therapist, Katie is passionate about helping clients achieve emotional and physical wellness. Katie has several years of experience working with families and children; this has included community work, in-home work and clinical practice. She applies a solution focused, strength-based family systems model individualized to each unique client. Katie has extensive experience working with individuals, families and children who have experienced abuse and trauma. She has also worked with children on the autism spectrum for over two years. Additional areas of focus include depression, anger, anxiety, relational and familial issues, communication, attachment and stress management. Katie has training and experience in marital and family therapy, play therapy, sandtray therapy, AutPlay, Applied Behavior Analysis and Theraplay.