I get this question from parents quite often. “How is playing with toys going to teach my child how to cope with anxiety/ADHD/depression/divorce/bullies?”
Play therapy is much more than playing with toys. It is the most developmentally appropriate way to approach counseling for children ages 3 to 12. A child’s primary language is play and toys are their words. Sit back some time and watch your child play. What do you see? If they are little it may look like nurturing a baby doll, serving you food, playing in a doll house with a family. You may hear them saying things you’ve said before or acting out a situation that may have happened the other day. For older children it may look like them building with Legos and you overhear negative or positive self-talk, creating art to reflect how they view the world, or playing board games and creating their own rules. These are all examples of children using play to explore the world and themselves.
If I were to sit a child down on a couch across from me and talk to them for 50 minutes about what their problems are, how to “fix” those problems, and what they need to change, a couple of things would happen. The first is they would view me just like they view every other adult in their life who is frustrated by their behavior and wanting them to change. Second, they would shut down and tune me out. Now if I take that same child and bring out Uno, fuse beads, sand, Legos, army men, dress up clothes… suddenly, they allow me into their world. They are free to dress up, dig in the sand, make a mess (within reason) without being told to be different. They talk to me, not in the traditional sense, but in a language I have been trained in. My training as a play therapist has taught me how to validate their experience and watch for themes in their play which help me understand what is going on in their world. In play therapy children can develop self-confidence, learn how to name and express feelings, build frustration tolerance, make sense of situations that have confused them, and feel safe all by playing with toys. Pretty cool isn’t it?
Have additional questions about play therapy or are wondering about where to find a Registered Play Therapist near you? The Association for Play Therapy is a wonderful resource and their site can be visited here.