Play therapy is a unique psychotherapeutic practice with a general aim that might be gleaned from the term itself: providing therapy through play. However, this broad explanation might suggest that play therapy is merely a method used to lift the spirits and divert the encumbered minds of troubled children by encouraging them to do what they enjoy doing most. While play itself can yield therapeutic results, such an understanding of play therapy would hardly scratch the surface of the theories, uses, and complexities involved in the play therapy process.
What counseling and psychotherapy aim to do for adults, play therapy aims to do for children. Specifically, play therapy encourages the expression of a child’s feelings, experiences, and cognitive functioning. This knowledge is vital to the therapist in determining the direction of the therapy process, as well as measuring the success of the intervention throughout a series of play therapy sessions. This method of extracting and utilizing information through effective interpersonal communication is theoretically in tune with any therapeutic approach, but play therapy distinguishes itself by conducting its observations in a uniquely revealing environment.
Play is an essential component in a child’s emotional, psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral development. Children also use play as a means of expressing themselves in ways that are not possible through direct communication. By using play as an outlet, a child is able to reveal (and a play therapist is able to observe) any confusion, frustration, or anxiety that might be inhibiting their development or otherwise preventing them from enjoying a happy, healthy childhood. It is for this reason that play has been referred to as the “language of childhood” and the role of a play therapy practitioner is to interpret this language and address important issues using a variety of play therapy approaches.
Though the type of play therapy employed will vary depending on a child’s situation, the most basic play therapy technique used by play therapists is commonly referred to as “child-centered play therapy.” The crucial elements in this formula, as in all play therapy approaches, are environment and the child-therapist relationship. Play therapy sessions are held in intently designed spaces called “play rooms” which contain an array of toys and activities deliberately chosen and carefully placed by the play therapy practitioner. Since the primary purpose of play therapy is to elucidate the child’s natural behavior, the play therapist must create an especially accepting and non-punitive atmosphere. If this arrangement is clearly established, the child will be more relaxed and instinctive and the play therapist will have a chance to make more acute observations. As the child displays his or her toy preferences (dolls, toy guns, costumes, etc.), behaviors, and levels of interaction, the play therapist—using theoretical models and their own expertise—can begin to assess and rationalize any existing issues ranging from trauma or stress to learning difficulties. Careful observation and analysis during the play therapy sessions allows the play therapist to provide the helpful guidance and structure necessary to resolve a child’s problems and restore healthy growth and development.
For over fifty years, this play therapy methodology has been used as a successful intervention and diagnostic device for children ranging from three to ten years old. However, as more research is done on the effects and uses of play therapy, the process has taken on many specialized forms and has been extended to treat mental health problems in people of all ages. It seems obvious that embracing and thoughtfully utilizing the natural, cathartic effects of enjoying oneself through play and humor can have a profound impact on the processes of both development and healing.