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For children who have experienced trauma—from abuse, family problems or social issues—play therapy can be an effective and developmentally-responsive way to cope and recover well-being.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy used mainly with children to facilitate communication and expression of thoughts and feelings through the use of toys and other creative activities. A trained clinician with experience working with children and families can provide this mode of therapy. Through the use of play, a clinician can make observations about the dynamics within the family system. In addition, the manner of play and the toys chosen can provide insight about the child’s behavior both in and out of the session. Play therapy can also help children build trust and a sense of safety in which they can thrive. The participation of parents and caregivers is often encouraged as their involvement helps strengthen the bond between the child and the caregiver.
In the third issue of Reunion, Joyful Heart explored creative expression and how it can help us connect with our inner healing voice that knows how to find our joy and heal. Through creativity, we can communicate “thoughts and feelings that are too big or too difficult to put into words.” Creative expression is a wonderful modality for all ages, but it might not work for children who are nonverbal, disinterested, or lack motor skills. Something more basic and inherent to their being kids can open the door for them: play.
Play is another form of natural expression. It is spontaneous, inventive and joyful. Importantly, it gives children the opportunity to take what is abstract or unmanageable and transform it into real, relatable experiences. Play therapy is used to describe a compilation of techniques that incorporates play in order to provide therapeutic benefits to children. It provides the space and materials for kids to safely deal with feelings, thoughts and experiences, and it is used to help children ages 3-12 years address problems such as trauma, repetitive rituals, regressive behavior and more.
Trauma can be defined as “an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful or shocking, often resulting in lasting mental and physical effects.” Examples include living through a natural disaster such as Hurricane Irene, witnessing an accident and surviving physical or sexual assault. As we know, trauma can also be caused by more than one incident, and it is also the emotional responses or symptoms to these experiences that threaten a person’s safety, security and control. Trauma is often intimately experienced and can cause physiological and psychological changes that may lead to feeling scared, distressed, upset, anxious and isolated. Unfortunately, children are not immune: statistics show that at least four out of ten American children will experience trauma before they reach adulthood.
Trauma can negatively impact children throughout their lives, from immediate reactions to their mental, physical and emotional development. It is vitally important for children to receive appropriate support so they, too, can find their inner healing voice and so that traumatic symptoms do not become embedded and permanent. Play therapy can support that goal.
Play therapy takes place in a safe environment with a trained therapist. Sessions can be tailored for individuals or a group of children, and selected materials (e.g., dolls, blocks, sand trays, art supplies, puppets, masks or games) are provided for play. Play therapy is child-centered, and contemporary models include both directive and nondirective approaches during which therapists may initiate play-based interventions, provide reflective observations or teach a parent/guardian play therapy techniques that will facilitate bonding with the child. Regardless of the approach, the goal is for children to have the freedom, time and space to make sense of their feelings and work through conflicts.
“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”