What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is counseling for children starting at a young age (when they are verbal) up to around age 10. My youngest client was 1.5 years old and my oldest was 11. We use play in counseling because children express themselves in their play, unlike adults who express themselves verbally.
Imagine as an adult having a hard day at work, and you go to your counselor and tell her everything you have had to experience that day. After an hour of your therapy session, you feel so much better for getting everything off your chest verbally. Your anxiety has decreased. The same is true for children in play. When they play, they decrease anxiety and after an hour of play, feel a lot more relief.
As a play therapist, we do not watch the children play and interpret what they are doing. I can imagine a lot of people think that I am constantly analyzing children by how they act and play. I am sure my friends with children are paranoid that I am watching their child and evaluating them all the time. But all kidding aside, as a counselor our main job is to empower children to express themselves more fully.
The following is the definition of play therapy from the Association for Play Therapy:
"Play therapy is to children what counseling is to adults. Play therapy uses play, children's natural medium of expression, to help them express their feelings more easily through toys instead of words."
In the textbook Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship (2nd ed.), Landreth (2002) defined child-centered play therapy:
A dynamic interpersonal relationship between a child (or person of any age) and a therapist trained in play therapy procedures who provides selected play materials and facilitates the development of a safe relationship for the child (or person of any age) to fully express and explore self (feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors) through play, the child's natural medium of communication, for optimal growth and development. (p. 16)
I personally, am a non-directive play therapist which means I do not tell the child what to play with or how to play with it. The time we spend together is up to the child and they choose what to play with and even if they want to include the therapist or not. There are art supplies, aggressive toys, animal toys, dress-up, puppets, nurturing toys, a play kitchen, a gender neutral doll house, a sand tray, and other real life toys such as a doctor kit. My job as the counselor is to help the child express themselves, encourage safe expression of feelings, and they in turn learn to increase their self esteem, learn to be creative in solving problems, learn self control and to accept themselves for who they are.
In general terms, play therapy occurs in a room full of toys that are preselected and play therapists believe that children express themselves more fully in spontaneous play than verbally. I am non-directive in that when the child enters play therapy for the first time, the therapist usually tells the child the following: "You can play with all of the toys in here, in a lot of ways you would like" and counselors only set limits when the child, counselor or toys are getting hurt." We set limits only when the child is going to endanger themselves, the counselor or the toys. It creates a non-judgmental, free place for children to express themselves fully.
If you would like to learn more about Play Therapy, the following websites provide additional information:
Association for Play Therapy
Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas