Play is an essential component of healthy development. Through play, children learn new skills and how to understand the world. They explore their environment, build relationships, and express emotions.
Since play is children’s natural medium of expression, it can be a helpful therapy tool. Play therapy involves using toys, art, and imaginative time to help children express their feelings. Play therapy aims to provide a safe and supportive environment for children to express themselves, develop coping skills, and work through challenges.
What is Play Therapy?
It can be difficult for children to express their emotions, and many struggle to do so verbally. Because of this, there can be a communication gap between children and adults. Play therapy aims to bridge this gap by allowing children to communicate their emotions and experiences through play. It enables the therapist to join the child's world.
We can learn so much by the way a child plays. Children's primary language is laughter and play while they are young. For example, when a child is angry, their anger can be acted out with smashing action figures together or puppets yelling at each other.
Many mental health providers, such as therapists, psychologists, and social workers, are trained in play therapy and use it in their practice. During playtime, the therapist observes how the child plays, including how they interact with toys and their choices. A child's interactions during play can reveal a lot about their inner world and how they are coping with challenges.
Play therapy is a gentle way for children to work through their emotions and challenges in a safe and comfortable space like home, school, therapist's office, or virtually. Children may use play to act out their fears and anxieties, and the therapist can observe how they play out different scenarios with toys. Observing the child's play, the therapist can better understand their feelings and help them explore and process difficult emotions.
There are different types of play therapy, including non-directive and directive.
- Non-directive play therapy gives the child complete freedom over how the time is spent. It allows the child to take the lead in the therapy session with minimal guidance or intervention from the therapist. During non-directive play, the therapist does not interfere with the child's play and choices. This approach aims to empower children to develop solutions to their problems and promotes self-discovery, self-expression, and emotional regulation.
- Directive play therapy involves the therapist setting the parameters of play by taking a more active role in guiding the child. The therapist might suggest certain toys or activities or offer advice for imaginary scenarios. During directive play therapy, the therapist sets specific objectives and uses play to achieve them.
The decision to use non-directive or directive play therapy, or a combination of both, depends on several factors, including the child's age, personality, development, and therapy goals.
Examples of techniques a therapist might use during play therapy, depending on the student's interests and preferences:
- Puppets or stuffed animals
- Arts and crafts
- Music and dance
- Dolls, action figures
- Toy phones or tablets
Play therapy is primarily used for children aged 3-12 but can also benefit teens and adults! Play can be used as a standalone therapy or in integration with other therapy methods, such as talk or family therapy.
How play therapy benefits children
Play is a child's first language; it allows them to communicate their thoughts without realizing it! Play therapy can benefit children in several ways.
- Increase self-awareness, confidence, and self-regulation
- Improve communication and social skills
- Build coping skills
- Develop problem-solving and decision-making skills
- Process trauma, grief, or other challenges
Play therapy can increase a child's self-awareness and self-regulation and improve communication skills. Play therapy can also help children develop problem-solving and decision-making skills, serving them at school, at home, and in life.
Play therapy can help children build relationships with others. As they play and interact with their therapist, children learn to trust and form positive relationships with adults. This can strengthen relationships with teachers, family members, friends, and peers.
Play therapy at Hazel Health
Play therapy is a powerful tool for helping children overcome emotional, behavioral, and social challenges. By providing a safe and supportive environment for children to express themselves, play therapy can help children develop the skills they need to thrive!
Hazel therapists often use play and art therapy when working with younger students,, Examples of techniques Hazel therapists use include:
- Reading books about feelings
- Encouraging the child to draw their emotions
- Promoting movement for emotion regulation
- Having the child rest a prop on their belly to promote breath awareness
- Asking the child to go on a scavenger hunt in their home to find specific items
Hazel therapists use a variety of tools to understand the child's feelings. One example is a "Rainbow Check-in." During the rainbow check-in, the therapist asks about the child's sunny, rainbow, and rainy moments throughout their day. The sunny moment represents the happy moments, the rainbow represents a moment that stood out to the child, and the rain represents a moment the child felt upset or uncomfortable.
It isn't always easy for a child to sit in therapy. Our therapists recognize the importance of movement and will encourage the child to stand up, move their bodies and shake out their wiggles! Asking the child to stand up and touch their toes, show off some yoga moves, or go on a scavenger hunt for items in their homes gives the child a brain break and helps engage the student throughout the session, while also achieving the goals of therapy.
Understanding and expressing emotions can be challenging for anyone, including children. It can be especially tough for kids who don't have the vocabulary to articulate their feelings fully. As providers, teachers, parents, and caregivers, we can create a safe and supportive environment for children to express themselves through play.
Play therapy is an effective way to help children navigate their emotions, fears, and insecurities in a non-threatening and enjoyable way. Children can learn to communicate and understand their feelings by engaging in play, leading to improved mental health and overall well-being.