Using Play Therapy To Help Children Communicate

Updated July 05, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Melinda Santa

You may have heard that it is just as important for children to play as it is for them to have chores and do their homework. This is true. Mental health professionals have observed that, for children and adults, play is just as important to our overall happiness and health as love and work.

Source: health.mil

When we play, we lighten our loads, brighten our spirits, and improve our attitudes toward life in general. Through play, we find relief from our stressors and feelings of boredom, connecting with others more positively. Play helps stimulate our creative thinking, encourages us to be more adventurous, keeps our emotions in check, and helps us hone our survival skills. We also learn and develop better when such skills are nurtured during play.

Play Therapy As A Form Of Expression For Children

Play therapy techniques are effective at helping children express themselves when they are unable to use their words to get across their thoughts and feelings. In-play therapy, the toys used serve as the child's words - toys that become a language once the child engages in play.

Play therapy helps children heal from what is troubling them by giving them a voice to tell their therapists what is wrong. This allows the therapist to reach the child when perhaps the therapist was unable to before. The therapist can also help the child build on their emotional or social skills, resolve inner conflicts, and improve cognitive development, all through play.

What Is Play Therapy?

The term "play therapy" refers to a variety of treatment methods that use play as therapy. Insofar as play therapy for children, this form of therapy is different from when a child normally plays with their toys. This is because the therapist encourages the child to confront and resolve their problems while playing with the toys. The child believes they are just having fun, unaware that the therapist is also working to help them confront a problem.

Play therapy is an extension of the normal way children learn about themselves and their relationships with others. In-play therapy, children learn:

  • How to express their feelings
  • How to communicate with other people
  • How to adapt their behavior to their environment
  • How to solve problems
  • How to relate to other people

The play also gives children a safe space to get away from their problems and express their thoughts and feelings. Even a child's most troubling concerns can be addressed in play therapy, which not only resolves their problems at the moment but also gives them the necessary tools to more effectively solve their problems in the future. In short, play therapy can provide a child with lifelong benefits.

Source: rawpixel.com

Ages To Which Play Therapy Is Better Suited

While everyone can benefit from play therapy - even adults! - Children aged 3 to 12 years old typically get the most out of it. The use of play therapy in adults has been steadily increasing since the early 2000s. In recent years therapists have been applying play therapy techniques to their treatment of infants and toddlers.

The Benefits Of Play Therapy

Play therapy is used with patients of all ages and in various situations and environments, from schools and hospitals to mental health facilities and recreational settings. Play therapy treatment is often the first course of action for those who suffer from social, emotional, or behavioral disorders, and it can be used to help people cope with and recover from a host of issues and conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Depression
  • Autism
  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Anger Management
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Divorce
  • Academic development
  • Death
  • Relocation
  • Hospitalization and illness
  • Physical and sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters

Specifically, play therapy helps children:

  • Would you please take responsibility for their behavior and develop strategies to cope with certain situations and problems?
  • Develop empathy, acceptance, and respect for the thoughts and feelings of other people
  • Develop respect for themselves
  • Learn to feel and express their emotions
  • Learn new social skills that can help them relate better to their families
  • Gain confidence in their abilities and what they can do

Source: flickr.com

A review of over 100 studies has shown that play therapy's benefits range from moderate to high and have been equally effective across ages and genders. Positive treatment outcomes were higher when at least one parent was actively involved in the child's treatment.

How Many Sessions Are Necessary To See An Improvement?

Research has shown that it takes, on average, about 20 weekly play therapy sessions consisting of between 30 to 50 minutes with the child to resolve a typical challenge. Of course, more minor issues may resolve sooner, while more serious or chronic issues may take longer to treat.

Involving Family Members In Play Therapy

Sometimes, a child's problems are caused by family members, and sometimes the child's problems are disruptive enough to send waves through the family, but that originate with the child. No matter where the problems originate, however, the fastest way for a child to heal is to work together with their family to find a solution.

The play therapist conducting the sessions will decide when and how to involve some or all of the children's family members in the child's sessions. At the very least, the therapist will want to keep in regular contact with the child's caretakers to work with them to develop a plan to address and resolve problems as they come up and monitor the child's progress.

In addition to, or instead of, including family members in the child's play therapy sessions, the therapist may instead suggest that the child's caretakers adjust how they interact with the child at home to promote what the child has learned in therapy. No matter how involved the child's family members are, whether they attend the sessions or not, they all play an important part in how fast and how well the child heals.

Play Therapy At Work

Back in 2016, a therapist, Tomás Casado-Frankel, LMFT, shared his play therapy experiences with Psychology Today, 

In the first example, Tomás describes a six-year-old boy who attended one of his sessions. The boy had repeatedly been subjected to seeing domestic violence at home, which had resulted in his becoming a bully at school. Upon entering the session, this child seized upon the barrage of miniature cars that had been laid out for him and proceeded to take over the dollhouse with them. The "bad guys" had taken over the home, and even when Tomás picked up a police car, the boy informed him that the police were unable to help.

Tomás noted that to anyone else, it would appear that this child was very aggressive and was using the toys to act out his anger, but a therapist sees the situation differently. Here, Tomás saw a child in pain who had no idea what he would go home to every day and that no one could help the poor people inside the dollhouse. He was using the toys to show that he felt helpless, vulnerable, and afraid.

Source: rawpixel.com

These are the kinds of feelings that may be just too much for a child to express. These feelings can be so overwhelming that the child cannot find the words to convey their feelings. Play allows him to express these feelings through his sort of language.

Tomás also gave another example of an eight-year-old girl who came to one of his sessions with anxiety to the point that she barely spoke and regularly experienced difficulty swallowing and moving her bowels.

While she refused to speak to Tomás during their first session, she eventually spoke through the dolls in the dollhouse. The girl placed the parent dolls atop a small airplane, then "flew" them to a hidden corner of the room the session was being held in, leaving the children in the dollhouse all alone.

Tomás discovered that the girl's family history consisted of her mother experiencing medical complications after the birth of the girl's youngest sibling, and the father was involved in immigration issues. The girl was terrified of losing her parents, a feeling that so consumed her that she could not put it into words - until, that is, she started playing with the toys.

About the first situation, Tomás recognized that the boy's behavior reflected his belief that the only way he could gain control over whether or not he was a victim was to be aggressive at school. However, by acting in this way, the boy does not address his pain or feelings of victimhood and cannot resolve them. Through play, a therapist can bring these things together. In Tomás' case, he pulled out another toy - an unexpected musketeer hero - who ordered the bad guys away - much to the boy's delight.

As for the second situation, the girl asked Tomás to search for his missing parents. Tomás asked her when the parents would be coming back, and the girl, speaking through the doll she was holding, said: "I don't know." Tomás replied with: "But I'm worried! I want my parents back now!" effectively finding the words the girl has been searching for this whole time to express her deep-seated fears and beginning her healing process.

Sources:

http://www.a4pt.org/page/PTMakesADifference

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201601/child-s-play-how-play-therapy-works

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