Why Play therapy is THE counselling approach to help children

Child using play doh in play therapy

As parents, we learn to understand our children by watching them and can usually tell when they are having problems by how they act.

When children experience challenges in life such as a death in the family, bullying, friendship issues, sleeping or eating difficulties, new school, sibling with an illness or disability, parents separating, this can show up in their behaviour. Their feelings may be very intense and overwhelming. When this happens, children feel flooded by intense emotions and may feel that everything is out of their control. They become reactive (just like adults) and ‘act out’ as their rational thinking brain shuts down (more details about the brain in my next blog!) and for some children they become very anxious, sad or withdrawn.

You may have come to notice that there are many ways that children show with their behaviours that they are struggling and not coping well with things that have gone on in their lives. One of the best ways to help children with behavioural, social and emotional problems is through an approach known as play therapy.

Play Therapy works in the same way as adult therapy – adults talk through their issues with a counsellor and children play through their issues with a play therapist/children’s counsellor, using toys, art, play and their actions to tell their story, rather than words. Play is their natural medium of communication and if given the right therapeutic conditions, children can direct their own healing. What clever little humans they are!

The child and counsellor work together in a counselling space called a playroom, which is equipped with specially chosen toys, play and art materials that will encourage the safe expression of feelings and also support the development of healthier behaviours.

In play, children will typically use their imaginations and express themselves symbolically through the toys. In play therapy then, children are allowed to express, using toys, all the things they have difficulty saying, or may even be unable to say at all, with words.

Through play, a child can reveal
– what the child has experienced
– reactions to what was experienced
– feelings about what was experienced
– what the chld wishes, wants or needs
– the child’s perception of self

These are important messages the counsellor looks for in children’s play in play therapy experiences.

Children can tell their stories and explore self (process thoughts and feelings, experiences and behaviours) through play and expressive art methods like drawing, painting, sandplay. For example, a child who has been in a car accident may play by crashing toy cars together. A child who has seen his parents fighting may use puppets to act out these conflicts seen at home.

In many cases, the behaviours that bring children into therapy are really ways of not being able to express what they need to express—of not being heard or not feeling good inside themselves (Violet Oaklander, 1997). The therapeutic setting encourages children to experience safety, learn to feel self-confident, learn to limit problem behaviour and tap into their potential.

This video gives a good explanation to parents as to what play therapy is about.