It’s a common response for people, when they hear the words, ‘Play Therapy’, to imagine the children having fun. This is not the case.
The distinction between Play Therapy and playing is this: Play Therapy has a therapeutic goal, whereas playing doesn’t. Children play with their friends or by themselves for the sole purpose of having fun and letting off steam. When a child is referred for Play Therapy, a therapeutic goal is established. This can range from improving self-esteem, learning to cope with anger issues, and developing self-confidence. In order to achieve their goal, children in Play Therapy go on an emotional journey.
This journey has its ups and downs, and over the course of the 12 weeks of Play Therapy (the minimum period), they will dip in and out of their own emotional process. Research has shown that only 8% of children talk about their problems, mostly they express their feelings through the play.
When a child enters the Play Therapy room for the first time, they can choose to play with any of the toys: puppets, sand tray, musical instruments, dressing up clothes, paints, crayons, clay. In non-directive play, the therapist respects the child’s choice, and plays along with them, to build up rapport, trust, and attachment. Once a strong attachment has been formed, the therapeutic work is well under way.
I have seen children change over the course of 12 weeks from being silent and scared to being expressively engaged; from showing no facial emotions to smiling with good eye contact. The irony is that by the end of the 12 weeks, the child may be able to enjoy life more because they have been able to express their feelings in a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment.