More than Child’s Play: Using Play Therapy to Support Child Development
Updated: Aug 26
Today, the concept of ‘play’ is at the forefront of child development specialist’ minds because it's become clear that play is an important part of wellbeing for children as well as for adults. Playing is an opportunity for children to be creative and develop both emotionally and cognitively.
Play time is a chance for parents and carers to interact with their children and engage with them in a way that’s developmentally appropriate. For decades, it has also been a tool to help children explore their emotions, develop resilience, and grow into adolescence with the tools they need to navigate an increasingly adult and complex world. Although it’s commonly associated with trauma, it can help children struggling with all kinds of emotional disturbances and behavioural problems.
The tool is called play therapy, and it offers benefits for any child who is struggling to navigate their internal emotional life.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach used among pre-adolescent children and on occasion among adolescents and adults. The concept of play therapy is almost a century old: scientists began publishing research on similar practices back in the 1940s.
The concept of play is important, particularly for children aged 3 to 12, because children in this phase of life find it difficult to experience and express complex emotions verbally. They don’t yet have the developmental tools to ‘talk it out’ and as a result, traditional talk therapy has limited effectiveness. Playful activity gives the child a chance to express themselves in a way that makes sense to them and with the tools they already have available.
Like most therapeutic interventions, play therapy isn’t just ‘one thing’ but a range of treatment methods that apply the concept of play. Each child’s session and treatment plan will be as unique as the child themselves.
What is Play in the Context of Therapy?
Playing within a therapeutic setting differs from the way a child might play at home or in school. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun — it is. It’s not uncommon to see even distressed children happily skipping out of their session. However, it is a structured form of play that builds a bond between the child and therapist and finds modes for children to express what’s happening in their internal lives to the therapist.
Each session differs based on the patients’ intake and the reality that ‘play’ is an infinitely complex subject. Therapists use a huge variety of toys. Some children may even mistake the therapists’ office for a toy store. Commonly used toys tend to be expressive: dolls and doll houses, puppets, art supplies, Lego, and musical instruments. These toys allow for self-expression and interaction in equal measure, which makes them ideal for therapeutic use.
How Play Therapy Works
Therapists use two broad approaches to play therapy. They might use one or both approaches depending on the child’s experience before and during therapy.
The first approach is non-directive play therapy. It is a type of play that leaves the child to their own devices within the supervision of the therapist. The premise is that when a child is in a safe space and has the freedom to do so, they can work through their emotional issues on their own.
Directive play therapy, however, is a more hands on approach. The therapist uses more instruction, and it tends to speed up results. The directive approach is more commonly used among children who have suffered abuse or trauma, as children are unlikely to have the ability to identify behaviours associated with trauma on their own.
Why Does Play Therapy Offer Children?
Popular media references play therapy as a treatment to help children navigate trauma. While it is an incredibly helpful way for young children to work through traumatic experiences like domestic violence, abuse, or the loss of a parent, the reality is that it’s helpful for all children in many ways. It can be used to:
Promote cognitive development
Resolve inner conflicts
Rectify dysfunctional thinking
Learn how to solve problems independently
Find ways to experience and then express emotion
Develop empathy for others and their feelings
Pick up new social skills
Play therapy also has the benefit of being equally effective across not only age and gender but also across presenting issues. As a result, it’s used by mental health professionals not only in private practice but also in schools, hospitals, and even in recreational settings.
How Do Parents Get Involved?
Parental or caregiver involvement is vital to the success of play therapy because they’re a key player in the child’s healing process. Whole family involvement is also particularly important when the child’s problems create distress for the whole family because play therapy involvement makes it easier for the family to grow and heal together.
Some therapists will also offer training for parents in filial therapy (therapy provided by caregivers) to help parents use the same techniques at home. They typically provide skills in structuring, imaginative play, limit setting, and empathy.
How to Talk to Children About Play Therapy
The benefits of play therapy for children and families are long established, but the concept of therapy still tends to produce anxiety in adults. They worry about explaining the decision to their children, and they worry about the stigma that may still be associated with taking their child to a therapist.
Fortunately, the concept of therapy is usually more anxiety-inducing for parents than for the children. It may help parents to learn techniques for explaining therapy for children so the child (and the parent) understands there’s nothing to worry about.
One helpful way to explain seeing a therapist to your child is to use a concept that most children are familiar with: visiting the doctor. A play therapist can be explained as a ‘worries doctor’ or a ‘feelings doctor’ who wants to help the child feel better.
Is Play Therapy Right for Your Child?
Play therapy is a developmentally-appropriate form of psychotherapy for children aged 3 to 12. It’s not just for children who have experienced severe trauma: it can help children struggling with anxiety, learning disabilities, or developmental delays as well. The practice is a way to help children express their inner emotional lives in a way that uses the tools they have available rather than asking them to ‘talk it out.’ What’s more the whole family can get involved, so you can all grow and heal together.
Is your child struggling with tackling their emotions or showing behavioural problems? Get in touch with us to learn how play therapy could help your family find balance and grow together. Our Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr Sangeetha Makielan provides play therapy for children under the age of 12.