By Elisabeth Kee, LPC
Play is a universal language for children. In every culture, in every society, one can find groups of kids engaging in some sort of play.
Think of how you played as a child. Did you play “House”? Did you make up games to play with your siblings? How about pretending to be a doctor or firefighter? I would say that almost everyone has at least one fond memory of using our imaginations to make up stories and games that would keep us entertained for hours on end.
But play is so much more than entertainment for children. At the core of play is learning. Children learn and grow through play. It is also how they work through bigger obstacles such as trauma, anxiety, depression and grief. When therapists mix the innate desire of children to play with therapeutic tools, it becomes a technique known as “play therapy”.
Imaginative Play Encourages Growth and Learning
There are different types of play, but what is most important in terms of play therapy is “imaginative play.” Imaginative play is basically what it sounds like; children imagine they are something else, or in a different situation than their current circumstances. This encourages growth and learning because they get to try on different “hats,” and see which ones they identify with. In turn, the child gains a better sense of self, each time they play!
In children without any exposure to trauma or stress, imaginative play also offers a way to try out different scenarios and possible choices without the real-life consequences. However, children with trauma or other disorders such as anxiety will often replay the distressing scenarios over and over again. They do this in different ways each time, but the theme usually remains the same.
Without a therapist to guide them, they often cannot resolve the inner conflict through play on their own. This can lead to distress and disorders such as depression or anxiety. With a therapist’s support, however, children are able to play through the distressing scenario in a satisfying way, that helps answer some of the unconscious questions and themes that arose as a result of the initial trauma or stressful event.
Healing Through Play Therapy
I’ll use my own childhood experience as an example. I am a pediatric cancer survivor and experienced medical trauma as a result. Let’s imagine I am a child again and in therapy, trying to understand what happened to me. I may act out my confusion and frustration with the situation through play. I would probably choose dolls and have them go to the hospital and experience the same things I experienced as a child, like surgery or chemotherapy.
In play therapy, the therapist would notice my patterns of play and help me make sense of them through specific questions. If I were the therapist of my “child self” (weird, I know, but stay with me!) I would ask her how the dolls are feeling, or maybe reflect back what I see is happening in the play. I would try to work on resolving whatever unconscious questions my “child self” has about what happened to her through play. I may ask her directly what she felt in that moment, if I think she would be able to handle speaking about the trauma directly.
I’ve witnessed the incredible healing that can happen through play. It works and it’s a privilege to be a part of the process. Through play therapy, children can learn how to solve their inner problems, act out their worst fears and survive them, and much more.
From teaching social skills to resolving trauma, play therapy is an essential tool in all child therapists’ belts. It can be used with children as young as three years old, and can be helpful with older children and adolescents as well. It’s a bit like hiding veggies in your child’s desserts. Children probably think that we are just playing but I am actually sneaking in the interventions as well.
Play doesn’t always need to be turned into therapy though. Sometimes just having fun and being a kid is just what the therapist ordered!
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