Romans 12:15 states, “Rejoice with those who rejoice…” I would like us to consider an additional thought, “Play with those who play.”
Virginia Axline, a pioneer in the use of Play Therapy, stated, “Enter into children’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet.” Play Therapy is a passion of mine, not only because it allows me to remain young and have a blast with some fantastic children, but also because I get to witness its healing power as a child’s mind, heart and soul!
So what is a Registered Play Therapist and what in the world is Play Therapy? First, as a Registered Play Therapist, I must have a minimum of 150 training hours and between 350-500 hours of Play Therapy training experience (In November, I will have completed all my trainings and hours! Whoop, whoop!). This is different than someone who incorporates “play therapy.” They are not required to have trainings or hours in working with children. The second question you may have is “Do you just get in there and play barbies or shoot army men for an hour?” Maybe! But even through the barbies and army men, therapy is happening. Gary Landreth, a leading authority in Play Therapy states, “Play is the language and toys are the communication of the child.” When I am in the play room, I am watching a child’s whole self; in other words, I am observing their nonverbal behavior, assessing their words, and assessing their play themes and ideas. It is through these elements that I gain a sense of how the child views his/her world as well as relates to it. Play Therapy allows for children to remain a safe psychological distance from their hurt. It also allows children to work within a metaphor; therefore, I am asking them questions about how a dino must feel after he/she is attacked rather than asking the child how he/she feels when he/she is attacked. This enables children to feel their feelings less intensely which stops them from shutting down due to an intensity of emotions. This part of play is very important for children, especially those who’ve experienced trauma.
For example, a child enters the room, gets the sand tray and the dinosaurs. He/she states, “We are going to war!” I respond and maybe ask with whom we are doing war. He/She doesn’t respond but carefully chooses his/her dinos that he/she wants in the tray. I voice an observation such as “Wow! Look at all those dinos! I wonder who’s doing battle today and who will win?” He/she then explains each battle group and how he/she is going to defeat the other or solve the problem at hand. It seems like “just play” right? Yet this is the third time he/she has created this scene as mom and dad are in the midst of a divorce. In these scenes, he/she has created an opportunity for him/her to control the fight and possibly determine if there is a “winner,” if both sides “lose,” or if the groups reconcile no matter what may be happening in reality of the world around him/her.
Play also allows me as therapist to find creative ways to help children build coping skills. For example, in reading “How Do Dinosaurs say ‘I’m mad’?” I read the book and the kids act out the different dinosaurs (pouty, angry, sad,etc.) and then together we incorporate yoga poses to help the “mad” dinosaur calm down as well as use deep breathing and counting methods to remain calm.
While play has a therapeutic realm for children, so it does with adults as well. Our worlds are plagued with responsibility day in and day out and the thought of engaging our hurts, fears, and sadness will simply cause us to shut down just like children do. I have had adults in the playroom and have given them a chance to “play” because traditional talk therapy was too much for them at the time. I’ve used the sand tray and allowed them to explore their world in metaphor allowing them to engage things from a psychological distance to they don’t feel overwhelmed. We have even gotten a beach ball and thrown it as hard as possible at the wall just to have a release of frustration. Does it sound silly? Yep. But did it work? Yep.
Overall, Play Therapy is an unequivocal tool for children to engage the chaos in their world. But it is also a tool that enables adults to engage the chaos in their world. Play Therapy reveals the longings, wishes, and wants of us all, while allowing us to intertwine the reality of our world in a safe, healthy manner.
If you would like to know more about Play Therapy and how it can help your child or you, please visit out website or email Peri Reed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peri Reed, M.S., PLPC, Registered Play Therapy Trainee
Certification for trauma in children and adolescents