The objective of a practice termed “Play Therapy” might seem self-explanatory: lifting the spirits of a troubled child by allowing them to do something they enjoy. But a world in which the widening spectrum of issues affecting a child’s development can be treated with a round of “Go Fish” is a world in which a double dip of chocolate ice cream is an acceptable treatment for meningitis. In other words, while play itself can be therapeutic, such a simplistic understanding of play therapy would hardly scratch the surface of the theories, uses, and complexities involved.
Play is an essential component in a child’s emotional, psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral development. It’s a means of expressing oneself in ways that are not possible through direct communication. Using play as an outlet, a child is able to reveal—and a play therapist is able to observe—any confusion, frustration, or anxiety that might be inhibiting their development, or otherwise preventing them from enjoying a happy, healthy childhood. It is for this reason that play has been referred to as the “language of childhood.” The role of a play therapist is to interpret this language and address important issues using a variety of approaches.
Though the course of play therapy varies depending on a child’s situation, the most basic technique is “child-centered play therapy.” As in all play therapy approaches, the crucial elements here are environment and the child-therapist relationship. Sessions are held in thoughtfully designed spaces called “play rooms,” which contain an array of toys and activities deliberately chosen and carefully placed by the therapist. Since the primary purpose is to elucidate the child’s natural behavior, the therapist must create an accepting and non-punitive atmosphere. If this arrangement is clearly established, the child will be more relaxed and instinctive, allowing the therapist to make more acute observations based on their knowledge and experience.
As the child displays his or her toy preferences (dolls, toy guns, costumes, etc.), behaviors, and levels of interaction, the therapist—using theoretical models and their own expertise—can begin to assess and rationalize any existing issues ranging from trauma or stress to learning difficulties. Careful observation and analysis during the play therapy sessions allows the therapist to provide the helpful guidance and structure necessary to resolve a child’s problems and restore healthy growth and development.
For over fifty years this play therapy methodology has been used as a successful intervention and diagnostic device for children ranging from three to sixteen years old. However, as more research is done, the process has taken on many specialized forms and has been extended to treat mental health problems in people of all ages. It seems obvious that embracing and thoughtfully utilizing the natural, cathartic effects of enjoying oneself through play and humor can have a profound impact on development and healing.