Play Therapy

What is play therapy? Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps children overcome their emotional difficulties through play. In play therapy the therapist cultivates a trusting and respectful relationship with the child. He provides a safe context whereby the child can process their feelings, thoughts, fantasies, experiences and traumas. Through interaction in the therapeutic relationship the therapist can recognize what are the possible problems of a child and what would be the best way to address them.

History: The importance of play has been underlined by various philosophers and psychologists through the centuries. Plato was the first one to say that “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” In the 18th century Rousseau emphasized the importance of playing for the understanding of children. Friedrich Frobel in the beginning of 20th century spoke about the symbolic meaning of playing and how it can help understand a child’s behavior.

Freud was the first one who talked about children’s therapy in the case of “Little Hans” (1909). Hans was a young boy suffering from a phobia. Freud saw the child once and then advised his father to take notes of his play.  The case of “Little Hans” was the first time that a child’s problems were connected to emotional factors.

In 1919 Melanie Klein started using play as a form of therapy in order to analyze children younger than six years old.  She believed that child’s free play was similar to free association in adults and therefore could be seen as a method to understand the child’s unconscious processes. Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter, also implemented play therapy as a way to understand and help children.

In the 1950s, Virginia Axline expanded on the ideas of her mentor Carl Rogers and established the non – directive play therapy. She suggested that play therapy could only be helpful if the therapist allowed children to express themselves in their own terms, in their own time and in their own way.

How does play therapy work? During play therapy children are given toys (play dough, pencils and markers, doll house, cars, puppets) in order to play. Through this material the child expresses their inner fears, conflicts and emotional problems. By expressing their internal world children learn new things about themselves and develop new ways to cope with difficult situations in a safe and trusted environment.

Which problems does play therapy address? Children don’t always have the words to express their feelings and this makes it more difficult to cope with stressful situations. In this case, play therapy can be one way to help the child process stressful events such as ADHD, anxiety, conduct disorders, abuse issues, aggression, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, poor social skills, impulsivity, learning difficulties, trauma, and grief.

Non – directive / directive play therapy: play therapy can be divided into two main categories, non – directive and directive. In the non – directive play therapy the therapist does not intervene in the process and allows the child to express their emotions in their own way. By playing freely in a safe setting the child works through their internal conflicts and possible ways to resolve them. In directive play therapy the therapist is guiding the process and is proposing toys, themes and situations to be enacted. Theorists of this school believe that children may need more structure and guidance in order to process traumatic experiences. Psychodynamic and person-centered therapy can be regarded as a form of non-directive play therapy whereas cognitive behavioral therapy can be regarded as a form of directive play therapy.

How long does play therapy take? The length of play therapy can vary according to the problems that the child faces, the cooperation of the parents and the motivation of the child. It can last from 3 – 6 months to 1 – 2 years. The sessions are usually weekly and there is close cooperation with the parents throughout the whole process. In psychodynamic play therapy the symptoms of the child may disappear quickly but the family and the therapist realize that behind the symptoms are deeper problems that need to be addressed.

What is the role of the family in play therapy?The cooperation with the family is important. The more the parents realize their role in the family dynamics the better for the process of the therapy. The therapist discusses with the parents possible ways of cooperation and they decide together what may be the best solution. Sometimes it can be parents’ counseling in order to help them improve their communication with the child and set specific rules. Other times parents themselves may need couple therapy in order to address some of their own issues that intervene with their parenting.