Q&A: Play Therapy and the Benefits of Play
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Q&A: Play Therapy and the Benefits of Play
Thank you to everyone who participated in Radio Flyer’s Q&A on Instagram. I am so glad I have the opportunity to answer your questions about play therapy and the benefits of play and provide information about the many ways that play helps children to thrive.
Play is a child's language. Therapists use play techniques to help children express what they cannot yet put into words.
Q: What are some examples of therapeutic play?
A: The general philosophy behind play therapy is that play is a child’s language and that they can express through play what they cannot yet put into words. Therapeutic play can take two main forms: non-directive and directive.
Both types of therapeutic play can be used to address a range of childhood concerns, including anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, academic and social challenges, and family conflict. Many therapists will use a combination of these techniques and the goal is always to provide a safe, supportive environment to help a child express themselves and make positive changes.
What is non directive play therapy?
Non-directive therapeutic play means the child takes the lead. The therapist will provide the child with a variety of toys and materials that encourage expression – a dollhouse, pretend food, toy dinosaurs, playdough, etc.
The therapist may join in the play but will not plan specific activities or give the child instructions about what to do. Instead, the therapist will observe the play and identify themes while allowing the child to reveal their feelings and experiences in the way that is most natural to them.
Here are a few examples of what this might look like:
- A child who is experiencing disruption in the home gravitates toward dollhouse play, setting up peaceful domestic scenes only to destroy them. By allowing the child to work through their feelings of anger and confusion in this way, their play eventually changes so that the dollhouse furniture is neatly arranged and the dolls interact pleasantly with each other.
- An older child who has experienced a significant loss regularly engages in extremely messy play, starting out with the intention of making slime but then adding so many ingredients that they are just left with a giant mess. Over time, as they are given space to make sense of their “messy” feelings, the child might show more of an interest in maintaining a tidier workspace and will ultimately be able to actually create the thing they set out to make.
What is directive play therapy?
In directive therapeutic play, the therapist will have the same types of materials in the play therapy room but will select activities or initiate play situations to guide the therapy session in a more specific way.
These are some examples of directive therapeutic play:
- The therapist chooses a board game to play with the child, perhaps with the goal of teaching the child about social norms like turn-taking and following directions or maybe with the goal of opening up conversation through the use of a therapeutic board game.
- In sand tray therapy, the therapist will present the child with an empty sandbox and a variety of miniature objects in the sand. The therapist will then encourage the child with a prompt such as, “Show me a scene in the sand” to create a physical representation of their emotional world by choosing objects to place in the sand.
Play is a type of “self-care” for children and allows them to be the healthiest versions of themselves.
Q: Is play a type of “self-care” for children?
A: Absolutely. It is possibly their most important form of self-care. After all, what is self-care? Active Minds defines self-care as “doing things to take care of our minds, bodies, and souls by engaging in activities that promote well-being and reduce stress.” That is exactly what play is for children. Here are some of the ways play helps children care for themselves:
- Allows them a sense of independence and healthy control
- Provides them with opportunities to safely process complicated emotions
- Gives them chances to make decisions and try out their own ideas
- Keeps their bodies active, healthy, and strong
- Encourages mindfulness as they become focused on their play activity
By ensuring your child has plenty of time to play, you are helping them learn to be the healthiest versions of themselves that they can be.
If you’re looking for ways to bring the power of play into your home or between therapy sessions, activities like puppet shows, calm down jars, and collaging are great ways to process and express emotions.
Q: What are play therapy inspired game and activities that we can do at home?
A: Before we talk about what to play, let’s talk about how to play because the relationship between you and your child – just like the relationship between the therapist and the child – is the most important thing.
- Join with your child in the activity. If they are playing on the floor, try to get down there with them. If they are coloring, you color too. This shows your child that you are genuinely interested in what they are doing and want to join with them.
- Let your child take the lead. Even in more directive play therapy (as discussed above), a child will be offered many opportunities to guide the play. So even if you are choosing an activity to do with your child, allow them to make choices and perhaps take you down an unexpected path. This will allow your child a healthy sense of control in a world where they often have little decision-making power.
- Focus on offering your child praise and descriptive sentences about what you observe. If you ask questions, choose your questions wisely and make them as open-ended as possible. For example, if you ask an anxious child, “Why did you color that green?” they may worry they have done something wrong, whereas saying, “Wow, I love the shade of green you used! Tell me what gave you the idea to choose that color!” will support their creativity and encourage them to share their thought processes with you.
- Offer toys that lend themselves to therapeutic play. Making available to your child a good selection of toys that are more open-ended will more naturally allow for self-expression. For example, a truck that makes noises can be fun, but a simple wooden truck will allow your child to make their own noises – whatever those may be!
With that in mind, here are three play therapy-inspired activities you can do with your child:
- Stage a puppet show! Have a range of puppets available to your child, including potentially aggressive puppets (e.g., alligator, T-rex, etc.) – or make your own. Puppets are a great way for kids to express their emotions indirectly and allow them to express big feelings like anger in a contained way.
- Two of my favorite more “directive” activities that kids also love are making calm-down jars and stress balls at home. These are simple but fun activities to do together with your child that naturally lend themselves to talking about anger, frustration, and worry, while also giving your child great tools to help self-regulate when these feelings do arise.
- Collage is a great form of self-expression and it takes the pressure off of a child who might avoid art because they think they are not good at it.
- For young children, even just the element of having a variety of material and textures to interact with can be therapeutic because they can get a variety of sensory input.Include soft cotton balls, scratchy sandpaper, hard beans, etc. and let them glue away
- Magazine collages are fun for all ages. An “about me” collage is a good way to learn more about your child and help them find new ways to express themselves. Let them choose magazine words and pictures that represent them – and you make one that represents you! Take turns sharing about why you chose the items you selected.
- If you have older children who are navigating the complexities of peer relationships, a variation is to cut out a mask: on one side of the mask, have your child represent how they see themselves; on the other, have them represent how they think other people see them. You make one for yourself, too. At an age where it is critical to keep communication open, this can open up a great conversation about trying to fit in versus being yourself.
Use play to help children work through big feelings surrounding significant events. If your child has a major event coming up, pay attention to their play and what emotions and interactions arise.
Q: Can you discuss using play as a way to prepare kids for big events (doctor’s appointment, moves, etc.)?
A: Play is the perfect way to help children work through big feelings about significant events. A good place to begin when anticipating a big event is to read a relevant book. Once the themes are established, you can set up play that is likely to lead your child to explore their feelings about the upcoming event.
- If your child is going to the doctor, use a toy doctor’s kit to perform a check-up on their favorite stuffed toy and encourage them to do the same.
- If you have an upcoming move, use a couple of dollhouses and provide them with dolls or animal figures (many children are more open when they use animals rather than human figures). You don’t need fancy toys to spark a child’s imagination – a cardboard box can easily be turned into a dollhouse; regular headphones can be a stethoscope. Remember that while you can try to provide relevant play opportunities, your child may have their own ideas.If you know your child has a major event coming up, pay careful attention to their play and see what they bring up on their own.
- Another technique is to write a short story specifically for your child that will walk them through step-by-step what they can expect at the upcoming event. Include clear, simple images so that even a child who cannot yet read can follow along.
Use play to cope with back to school or general school anxiety to create a positive association with school and to help your child think of school as a place that is fun and safe.
Q: How can play help ease back to school/general school anxiety?
A: Transitions can be hard for children, and even a child who loved school may be nervous about returning to school after a long break. In addition, to the suggestions above for managing feelings around other big events – all of which are relevant to returning to school – something I recommend for children experiencing school-related anxiety is to visit the school grounds and play on the school playground or in any safe play place where the child can see the school. If your child your child is particularly nervous about school or is a preschooler who will be attending school for the first time, contact the school to see if you can arrange a time for your child to come into the building and play in their classroom. These activities will create a positive association with school and help your child to think of school as a place that is fun.
Finding a balance of screen time will look different for each family and can be an educational and creative tool, but ultimately screen time will not give kids the same self-care benefits as play.
Q: How do I balance play and screentime?
A: After the past year-and-a-half, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all pushed the boundaries on screen time limits. My son didn’t even see a screen until he was over two; meanwhile, my 20-month-old daughter is basically best friends with Elmo and Abby Cadabby. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has relaxed their screen time guidelines in recognition of the fact that media is now an inescapable part of children’s lives. Their current recommendations are as follows:
- No screen time for children under 18 months other than video calls
- From 18 - 24 months, high quality educational programming can be introduced with parents watching together with their child
- For children aged 2-5 years, screen time should be limited to 1 hour of high-quality programming with parents co-viewing
- For children ages 6 and older, balance media use with other healthy behaviors and place consistent limits on screen time use
Okay, so . . . what does balance mean? The answer is that balance can look different in each family and that is why AAP created this excellent Family Media Plan tool and I encourage your family to sit down together and make your own plan. Here are some guidelines to consider:
- On most days your child – especially preschoolers – should be engaging in non-media activities more than media activities. Kids under 6 years should be engaging in screen-free play for most of the day.
- Make sure your child is meeting physical activity guidelines: Preschoolers should be active throughout the day and school-aged children and teens should get a minimum of an hour of physical activity per day.
- Kids should stop screens at least an hour before bed. Pre-bedtime can be a great time for quieter, imaginative play.
- Agree on times of the day and places in the home that will be screen-free, such as no screens during mealtimes or in the kitchen. These limits need to apply to adults in the family, too!
- Remember that screen time will not give kids the same benefits mentioned above, so make sure they have time to get all those wonderful self-care benefits!