Play therapy is therapy that uses play as a means to achieve therapeutic goals. It is a natural medium for a child's self-expression. Children use play as a way to learn, socialize, share, create, imagine, plan, express negative emotions, learn to handle stress and disappointment, and solve problems. They also use play to practice new roles, similar to rehearsing.
Play encourages children to attend therapy sessions because it is familiar and increases their sense of having fun. And since play allows the therapist to relate to children on their own level, children will be more likely to express their true feelings. Play therapy works with children because they are not yet fully capable of talking out their feelings, but they are capable of playing out their feelings.
Foster children generally appear to have difficulty bonding with others, probably because they change families more than other children.
Play therapy helps them bond with the therapist which facilitates the healing process. This bond creates a therapeutic alliance, which is considered to be a single most important element of successful therapy.
Without this alliance, trust does not exist. Without trust, few therapeutic gains will be made.
Abused children often have an even harder time expressing their feelings because they are more anxious than their non-abused peers, and they have difficulty trusting others. Play helps them relax and learn to trust again, which is absolutely necessary for therapy to be effective. Play therapy also allows children to distance themselves from the abuse they have suffered until they are better able to face it directly. An example of distancing is to reenact a harmful scene the child experienced, but to have the scene acted out between puppets. In such a situation, the therapist guides the child to express the specific abuse, or to figuratively confront the abuser, when the child is emotionally capable of doing so.
This indirect process helps protect the child from becoming overwhelmed or retraumatized, which would only worsen the symptoms caused by the abuse.
Components of play therapy include games, art therapy, movement therapy, drama therapy, and playing dress up (limited to use of accessories such as hats, jewelry, shoes). Typically, the therapist's office will include board games, crayons, paper, paint, toys, dolls, puppets, puzzles, building blocks, etc.
All of these toys are actually tools the therapist uses to interact with and assess the child, and provide therapeutic interventions.
Examples of play therapy include having the child: draw how they feel, demonstrate with dolls what they've experienced, role-play behavior change, or play a board game while talking about feelings in a safe environment. It could include reading a book, such as "No-No and the Secret Touch" in which a baby harp seal talks about "bad" touch and how to say "no" and then tell an adult (learning by example, and discussing with the therapist).
Play is fun for children, but it is also a powerful therapeutic tool designed to help children regain happiness and mental health.
· This column is written by contributors to Family Referral Education and Empowerment (F.R.E.E.) Collaborative of Synchrony of Visalia, Inc. which is funded by First 5 of Tulare County and appears once a month in the Visalia Times-Delta and in Spanish in El Sol.