Birds fly, fish swim, and children play.–Garry Landreth, Author of Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship
Play therapy was developed with the knowledge that play is the language of children. While it is often therapeutic for adults to talk things over with a therapist, children benefit similarly from a session of unstructured play.
Children need time and space to work through feelings and thoughts, practice appropriate social interactions, and just generally feel free to express themselves in whichever way they choose. The play therapy room and that safe relationship with their therapist provide the opportunity for just that. With a non-directive play therapist, they have an ally in their development and a partner in play rather than an authority figure telling them how to act or what to do. Given this environment, they are more easily able to decide whom they choose to be on their own.
Play Therapy: What’s the Point?
I’m sitting in the therapy room, watching a child create a scene in the sand tray. I’m engaging with him, noticing where he puts each object, commenting on the scene he’s choosing to create. Out of nowhere, a familiar feeling creeps into my brain: doubt. Doubt starts to say, “Why are you just sitting here watching this child play? Isn’t his mom paying you to help create change for this child?”
As adults, and as play therapists, it is so tempting to fall into doubt’s trap. It is so tempting to start to question the value of simple, unstructured play for children. But just as a therapist’s role with adults is not to step in as the expert and “fix” everything for them, the play therapist’s role with a child is also not to take control and do things for them. Not only is it impossible to change something FOR another person (at any age), but it also completely misses the point of therapy.
So What IS The Point? Two Things.
- The Relationship.
- The Process.
The Relationship: Am I Really Just a Glorified Babysitter?
No. The simple answer is no, you’re not just a babysitter. Yes, you’re playing with children. Yes, that may seem confusing to the outside observer. But at the heart of that play, you are building a positive, trusting relationship and a safe space for the child to explore him/herself and the world around them.
When the child from the story above is carefully positioning those miniatures in the sand tray, he is using the language of play to express his unique thoughts and emotions. To have someone there to walk alongside him as he expresses these things fosters trust and safety. When I comment on how carefully he chooses his miniatures for the scene and reflect that he puts a lot of thought into the choices he makes, I’m showing him that I’m present in his play experience. And more importantly, I’m showing him that I notice him and the person he is choosing to be.
Play therapy is about providing a place for the child to feel free to explore. What they explore and where they go is up to them. The important part is that they feel safety, freedom, and ownership of their own therapeutic process. It is about taking what is in their life that feels unmanageable to them and bringing it into a manageable forum of symbolic play. You help them see the truth through the experience of play.
The Process: Let the Play Do the Work
Why Child-Centered Play Therapy?
One of the primary premises of child-centered play therapy is that the child will choose exactly where they need to go. And as their therapist, it is your goal to follow them wherever that may be.
In child-centered play therapy, the focus of the session is quite literally “child-centered,” and that means exactly what it sounds like. As the therapist, your goal is to follow them wherever it is they need to go, engaging with them, acknowledging that you’re there, you hear them, you notice their choices and their feelings, and you’re walking alongside them in their play.
Your goal is not to change the child. Your goal is to provide the child a rich space full of possibilities in which they are able to change themselves. This is why you’ll see a vast array of options in any fully equipped playroom, typically including a sand tray, miniatures for the sand tray, puppets, an easel and paint, a dollhouse, a good variety of dress up clothes and props for imaginative play, some games, and more. And it all remains visible to the child, so they can quite literally choose what they need. Your role is to act as a mirror and reflect them and their choices back to them as they go. So, what is the purpose of play therapy?
Quite simply, the purpose is to let the child play.