Why play therapy
Play therapy is an effective and important method of working with children for several reasons. Foremost, it is a way to meet the child at his/her level and begin to develop the therapeutic relationship where they are. Using play allows exploration of likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, which in a safe and accepting relationship builds self-esteem. It also encourages expression of feelings on a level the child can understand.
In addition, children do not have the vocabulary or cognitive development to discuss their feelings, thoughts, and issues in depth. Play is a wonderful medium that acts as their words and gives them a language to do this. It is very useful with children that are resistant to talking or that have difficulty using language to express how they feel. Using play creates a safe distance to express difficult emotions such as when a child uses a puppet to express how they feel or share a difficult experience they went through rather than having to say it directly. Some additional benefits include building social skills, enhancing problem solving skills, practicing anger management skills, enhancing self-esteem, working through trauma and grief issues, expression of feelings, and self-exploration among others.
Types of play therapy techniques
There are many ways I use play therapy with children. I might ask the child to create a scene in the sandtray related to their current problem. We would then explore together their creation to learn more about their own feelings and thoughts. Sometimes we may create different things out of clay and talk about how these things might feel or what they experience. We might smash or pound on the clay as a safe, healthy and fun way to release anger. They may tell me a story through dolls or puppets about something they are struggling with. In addition, we may use stories, games, drawing, collages, paintings, and any number of others activities and toys. Children are often the best at creating their own ideas for games or play activities. This in turn helps to develop their self-esteem, allows what they are experiencing to be expressed, and gives them a sense of mastery over the problems they are having.
Although I have referred to these activities in the context of play therapy with children, there is no age limit for the use of many of these activities. While some adolescents or adults may feel silly at first, it can be a very useful and valuable medium of expression, self-exploration, and insightful experience for them as well.