What is play therapy and how does it work?

Child playing

Children communicate through play


Play therapy is simply a child friendly way of encouraging children to talk about their feelings and experiences or to deal non-verbally with psychological and emotional issues.  Children mimic and explore their world through play and often communicate through their play or drawings.

Initially the first few sessions will focus on the child and therapist getting to know each other and the therapist trying to understand the situation from the child’s perspective.  The next few sessions will focus on addressing these issues through through the non-threatening medium of play.

There are virtually hundreds of play therapy techniques that psychologists and play therapists can draw from in a play therapy session, but in general they can be divided into two categories: Therapist-directed play and Child-directed play.  During therapist directed play the therapist will decide which psychological or emotional aspect he or she would like to focus on in the session and then takes the lead in introducing games and toys, but during Child-directed play the psychologist invites the child to take the lead and mainly takes a back seat, observing the child while he is playing and commenting occasionally on what the child is doing.

Personally, I like to make use of both these techniques during my play therapy sessions.  I generally use the first half-an-hour of a session for Therapist-directed tasks and then allow the child to take the lead for the next half-an-hour.  Children may occasionally avoid confronting a particularly painful memory or emotion and in Therapist-directed play therapy the therapist is able to gently guide the child towards it.  Then again, I have often worked with children where I’ve never quite understood how to help them or even what exactly to focus on, but by simply being present and reflecting their feelings and behaviour during Child-directed play they have managed to “work through” their own issues and soon after the presenting problem (the reason their parent first brought them to play therapy) seems to disappear.



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