Play Therapy: A growing number of mental health professionals believe play is as important to human happiness and well-being as love and work. For children, play is also a natural form of communication, particularly about events/experiences/thoughts that are difficult to put to words. Play therapists understand that play is the child’s language and that the toys can become the child’s words. Play therapy is a well-researched, structured, and theoretically based form of counseling or psychotherapy that uses play to communicate with and help people, especially children, to prevent or resolve emotional challenges. Play therapists strategically use play to help children express what is troubling them when the words are too difficult to find.
Play therapists observe the child playing with the toys provided in session to determine the potential cause of the disturbed behavior. The toys chosen, the patterns of play, as well as the willingness to interact with the therapist can all be used to understand the underlying rational for behavior both inside and outside of the therapy session. By creating a safe, confidential and caring environment, the child is allowed to play with as few limits as possible, but as many as necessary to ensure physical and emotional safety. This space of acceptance and non-judgment allows healing to occur on many levels. The therapist may reflect back to the child observations of what has happened during the play, helping the child begin to develop the language needed for self expression.
Play therapists believe this method of therapy allows the child to manipulate the world on a smaller scale, something that cannot be done in the child’s everyday environment. By playing with specially selected materials, and with the guidance of a person who reacts in a designated manner, children play out their feelings, bringing these hidden emotions to the surface where they can face them and cope with them. The therapist is unconditionally accepting of anything the child might say or do. The therapist never expresses shock, argues, teases, moralizes, or tells the child that his/her perceptions are incorrect.
An atmosphere of acceptance is developed in which children know that they can express themselves in a non-punitive environment. Yet, even though the atmosphere is permissive, certain limits may have to be imposed such as restrictions on destroying materials, attacking the therapist, or going beyond a set time limit. In this way, children learn strategies to cope with difficulties they face in life, and which they themselves cannot change.