Play therapy can benefit all children, especially those with mental health issues or those who’ve experienced abuse or neglect.
- Play therapy can help all children, especially those with psychological, mental, and emotional health issues.
- It’s beneficial for children who’ve suffered from abuse or neglect.
- It’s useful for coping with anxiety, stress, anger, and challenging behaviors.
- It can help children who struggle to communicate because of developmental delays, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Many children struggle with communication and emotional regulation. They might have difficulty coping with stress and thus exhibit anxiety, anger, or challenging behaviors. Play therapy can be an effective treatment for children experiencing difficulty in identifying, communicating, and regulating their emotions.
Play therapy can support children as they learn to manage their emotions. The therapeutic relationship it provides supports the development of positive, healthy attachments.
What is play therapy?
Play therapy helps children process and express their thoughts and emotions through play. It offers an enjoyable and child-friendly approach to exploring challenging events and topics. It is about much more than just “having fun, though.” During sessions, a therapist observes a child’s actions and choices throughout play to gain insights into that child’s experiences, behaviors, and overall emotional health.
Children who have untreated experiences with physical/mental/sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, and/or witnessed violence can display a variety of challenging behaviors. Young children may be incapable of talking about what happened, whether out of fear, shame, or because they haven’t yet developed the necessary communication skills. Without the ability to express their emotions, they instead “act out” in different ways.
Acting out might include severe anxiety, crying, angry outbursts, self-harm, emotional meltdowns, and even physical harm to others.
Licensed mental health professionals such as psychologists, social workers and counselors, behavioral therapists, or occupational therapists conduct play therapy sessions to support young children in processing their experiences and emotions.
Who benefits from play therapy?
Play therapy is most often used for children ages 3-12, though babies and adults can also benefit from it. It’s recommended in several circumstances, including:
- For children facing medical procedures, chronic illness, or palliative care
- For children with developmental delays or learning disabilities
- For children with ASD
- For children with ADHD
- For kids who are displaying problem behaviors in school
- For angry or aggressive behaviors
- For family issues such as divorce, separation, or death in the family
- After natural disasters or other traumatic events
- After domestic violence, abuse, or neglect
- For anxiety, depression, or grief
- For eating disorders
How does play therapy work?
Play therapy schedule structure can vary between weekly or biweekly sessions. The number of sessions depends on several factors, including the severity of the problem, past trauma, and how well the child responds. Therapists will offer recommendations based on their best clinical judgment. Sessions can be directive or non-directive. With the directive approach, the therapist takes the lead, guiding sessions with specific toys or games with a particular goal.
The non-directive approach allows the child to choose their toys and games. These sessions are much less structured with fewer interventions from the therapist.
The therapist will observe how the child interacts and communicates during play in both cases.
- Creative visualization
- Toy phones
- Puppets and stuffed animals
- Dolls and action figures
- Arts and crafts
- Water and sand play
- Blocks and construction toys
- Dance and creative movement
- Musical play
Now, let’s talk about the five benefits of play therapy.
1. Play therapy provides a safe way to connect and share
Many young children have difficulty communicating their emotions, especially after experiencing trauma, neglect, or abuse. Play therapy helps therapists engage children in a way that feels comfortable so they can open up about their feelings. Toys and other play materials can serve as metaphors to help children communicate experiences and emotions in a nonverbal way.
Using stuffed animals, play dough, dolls, and other toys may be less intimidating for children than talking directly to a therapist about emotions and/or traumas they have experienced.
2. Play therapy presents opportunities for distraction
For children who’ve experienced trauma, play therapy presents opportunities to relieve stress and anxiety. Play can be soothing for children while the tools utilized can serve as temporary distractions from the troubling thoughts they may have.
PTSD-related issues can be overwhelming for young children and adolescents, causing them to shut down and disconnect emotionally from the reality of their traumatic experiences. During play-based interventions, therapists observe how particular play perspectives allow children to communicate their fears, providing insight into how they are processing difficult experiences and emotions.
3. Play therapy presents opportunities to learn self-awareness and develop coping skills
Play takes place outside of conscious awareness. Children can play because they need or want something or are seeking specific input. It provides opportunities for them to learn about themselves and their environment, develop social skills through interactions with others, and express complex emotions. During sessions, children can play out different scenarios using a range of materials.
Play therapists support clients as they work to identify problem behaviors and determine healthier coping methods when dealing with adverse situations. They can also practice new skills through play activities, which may be less harmful or self-destructive.
4. Play therapy avoids power struggles with kids
Play can be an effective way for kids to explore their imagination, as well as explore personal boundaries of themselves and others. This gives the therapist opportunities to guide play without the risk of becoming engaged in power struggles with the child. If children become resistant or refuse to cooperate, the therapist can offer new play materials that redirect attention from triggering topics or material.
5. Play therapy provides opportunities for creative expression
Young children are naturally creative, especially when it comes to playing. They become absorbed in another world or alternative reality, which can provide a safe space to express themselves and communicate their feelings. Therapists can take advantage of these moments to help children explore and make connections between their thoughts and feelings and how they impact their behaviors.
Play is also a form of communication that gives the therapist insight into how a child makes sense of their world by playing out situations and problems in a way that feels safe and engages their imagination.
Play therapy at Lumiere Children’s Therapy
Play therapy is part of our comprehensive Social Work services and is one of the many ways our experts help kids build skills while coping with a range of physical, developmental, and emotional delays and differences. We create individualized play programs to address the needs of each child.
Along with play-based activities, we employ other approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, systems therapy, art therapy, and talk therapy. We work hand-in-hand with a client’s support system to ensure tools and skills can and are implemented in daily life outside of sessions.
Aside from play therapy, we provide other comprehensive therapy services, including:
- ABA therapy
- Speech therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Developmental therapy
- Physical therapy
- Early intervention
- Social work
- Augmentative Alternative communication
Lumiere Children’s Therapy is a full-service, multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago that serves the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Learn more about how our team of clinicians works to improve the lives of children and their families.