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What is Play Therapy?

As a national play therapy week comes to an end, I thought it would be a great idea to inform readers as to what play therapy is and how it can be beneficial. Children express themselves through play activities. They act out movies and scenes; they pretend to be super heroes, race cars, dogs, etc. in an effort to experience different facets of life and to gain different perspectives (they don’t know this yet). It is in these play activities that they learn how to interact with others, they learn boundaries and respect, they learn about feelings, critical thinking skills, and problem solving. During play kids learn.

Play therapists are licensed professional counselors, social workers, and/or marriage and family therapists who specialize in play therapy. This means that most have at least a master’s degree plus specialized training in the techniques of play therapy. They know how to assess and interpret your child’s behavior and/or concerns with therapeutic play. It’s not a cure for major mental illnesses but it is an outlet, a safe outlet, with a skilled specialist and advocate in the area.

A play therapists office, whether it’s in a building or brought to your home, will be equipped with carefully selected toys. There is nothing magical about the toys, except they have been selected to represent feelings or people or events or whatever your child wants them to be. The therapist will allow your child to play with the toys, they will track them, they will talk to them because the magic actually occurs in the relationship with the therapist and the safety the child feels in their presence.The relationship that is built with the therapist does not mean you aren’t a good parent. Children often feel the need to protect their parent(s) from things that are uncomfortable. Many older children have told me that they don’t want to create any more stress on their parents or the he or she is ashamed or embarrassed or maybe they just can’t pinpoint the problem. That is why the relationship with the therapist is so important, it’s an outside person and by playing it doesn’t seem like they have to tell anything.

What play therapy does is allow children to express themselves without necessarily using words. As adults, we want children to tell us what is going on with them (tell me what happened, tell me why it hurts, what’s wrong) and a lot of the time children just don’t know how to articulate that but they can show us. Play therapists may allow children to be in control of the session, telling or doing what they need to do to heal. Children have this uncanny knack to know what they need, if we pay attention and provide them with the tools to make it happen. A child can, and often will, re-enact situations or events that have caused them to experience uncomfortable feelings and it’s much easier to do in a less restricted environment. It’s through the play that children will learn to master the feelings and begin to heal.

For example, if a child comes in and let’s say they aren’t talking in school and may or may not being talking much at home either. Play therapy allows the child to work through their problems using any of the toys in the playroom to express themselves. By using the toys, children are able to disconnect the reality and the scariness of the events that are causing problems and try different ways to solve the problem or master it. Similar things happen when a child experiences behavior problems, anxiety, abuse, trauma, and many other uncomfortable feelings.

If your child is struggling with an issue that you can’t seem to figure out, it may be in the best interest to seek a counselor to help guide you or child to a better place. It doesn’t always happen quickly but it pays off. Parents have said things like, “I don’t know what you guys do in there but she always leaves so much more relaxed, like she can conquer the world.” And this is why I do what I do, providing children a means of communication to work through their worries the least stressful way possible in a language they understand.

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