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An Introduction to Play Therapy

What is play therapy, and why is it used?

Play therapy helps children to express themselves, make sense of life experiences and explore their feelings. For younger children, conventional conversation-based therapies may not be appropriate as they may struggle to articulate their feelings and experience. This is where play therapy comes in.

The idea is to use play to help children understand complex psychological issues or life experiences. It can be child-led, where the child is given choices about how they use the time and play materials, or more ‘directive’ where the therapist takes more charge of the situation. Encouraging children to participate in play therapy to work through issues enables them to deal with difficulties in the real world more easily. It teaches healthy ways to communicate and facilitates emotional literacy.

An important part of play therapy is a strong relationship between the child and therapist. From the therapist’s perspective it allows for more insight into the situation as they learn the patterns in the child’s behaviour and play habits. From the child’s perspective it encourages them to play and express themselves more freely, as they are in the presence of someone they trust.

Photo by Amina Filkins from Pexels

Who needs play therapy?

Play therapy is used for many reasons, including:

  • bereavement.
  • family breakdown.
  • abuse or neglect.
  • low self-esteem or anxiety.
  • depression.
  • domestic violence.
  • ADHD and behavioural problems.
  • learning difficulties.
  • trauma.
  • separation from culture of origin.
  • terminal illness or disability, or coping with carers or siblings with illness or disabilities.

Children of different genders, abilities and cultures can all benefit from play therapy. With adaptation, the method can suit any age or developmental level, but is most frequently used for children aged between three and twelve.

What do play therapy sessions consist of?

After listening to the concerns of the child’s family and/or carers, they will review information about the child’s personality and history and research the experiences both they and the family have been through, in order to prepare for working through this with the child. To properly prepare, they may speak to other significant adults in the child’s life, including their early years practitioners.

The child will be able to choose from a wide array of play materials, including sensory items like sand and water, dressing-up outfits, musical instruments and soft toys. The therapist will encourage and enable the child to express themselves using these resources, without having to articulate their feelings verbally.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

How long does play therapy take?

Depending on a variety of factors, such as the level of support from the child’s environment and the complexity of their problems, the therapist may recommend a short-term intervention lasting around 12 sessions, or a longer course of treatment, spanning six or maybe 12 months. Sessions are usually once a week and, ideally, at the same day, time and location each week.

What are the results of play therapy?

Play therapy can help children:

  • Become more responsible for their behaviours and develop more successful coping strategies.
  • Develop new and creative solutions to any problems.
  • Develop respect and acceptance of both themselves and others.
  • Learn to experience and express their emotions in a more healthy way.
  • Cultivate empathy and respect for the thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Learn new social skills and improve familial relationships.
  • Develop self-confidence.

Want to know more? Check out the British Association of Play Therapy for further information or to find a therapist.