Is Play Enough?
By Jennifer Welton
What is going on during my child’s therapy session? As a parent you may be wondering and asking this question. Most likely your child’s therapist has explained the process, but now that you have a moment to relax, it may seem like a blur now. It can be difficult to remember exactly what play therapy is and you may be feeling anxious about the whole thing—this is your baby after all. So, is it just playing and talking? Yes, and so much more. Here are the five key takeaways translated into parent/caregiver-friendly language to help you know what is going on in your child’s play therapy sessions.
1. Play is the language and toys are the words – developmentally, play is the child’s mode of communication. Garry Landreth shares that for children, play is the most natural expression and way of connecting. Feelings and attitudes that may feel scary or uncomfortable can be acted out with toys. Play therapy sessions create a dedicated time and space to slow down and support your child’s expression.
2. It’s not all about the toys – it is about the relationship. According to the Synergetic Play Therapy approach, the therapist is the most important toy in the playroom (Dion, 2018). Yes, your child may be playing with toys or working with sand or art materials, but it is the safe connection the therapist has created with your child that nurtures trust and the potential for growth.
3. Nervous systems are communicating – it’s not hard to imagine that your child might enter the playroom anxious or angry. Through what seems like play therapist ESP, the therapist will recognize your child’s emotions through what we call a “felt sense.” It is what your child’s nervous system is communicating. The play therapist will name your child’s emotion and model a self-regulation strategy like deep breathing or movement. This seems so simple to say in words on this page, but from moment-to-moment in the playroom, the therapist is the child’s emotional anchor. The child feels safe, seen and heard, both internally (the nervous system) and externally (facial expression).
4. Setting boundaries looks different – we steer clear of telling your child, “No!” but that doesn’t mean it’s a free for all either. If your child has big behaviors, the play therapist allows the child to show aggression in the playroom to help him/her integrate their experience. Your child’s therapist will help you to set age appropriate boundaries at home that will help you to model the language of respect and safety.
5. Integrating the many parts of the self – we all have many parts of our self and one goal of therapy, for both children and adults, is to bring our parts together to be balanced as one. As adults, we can notice our many parts usually by our feelings or the way we act. When something is painful, adults put our “baggage” aside because if is too painful to bring to the surface by holding it in or stuffing it down. Young children haven’t developed these skills to manage their parts, or the scary things that may have happened to them. They communicate their difficult emotions through challenging behavior or by going inward and withdrawing. Play therapy helps your child integrate their unhelpful parts by bringing the difficult emotions to the surface through play because play is a child’s natural language.
6. Strengthening your at-home toolbox – we know that while therapy is a temporary, you are your child’s parent forever. That’s why your child’s therapist will be sure to provide you with the skills developed in the playroom to use at home, so you will be just as great of a “feelings detective.” When your child leaves therapy, chances are they will be in situations that could be triggering (symptoms) and as the parent/caregiver, you will know the signs to look for in order to step in and help.
The five key points listed here seems like a lot to digest, but it just scratches the surface on the extensive research on the benefits of play therapy. If you are interested in learning more, the parenting pod has a comprehensive guide.
Jennifer Welton, MA, MS, NCC, LPC specializes in working with preschool-aged children, but serves all children and their families who are experiencing difficulties in social, emotional, or behavioral development.