Children can benefit enormously from psychotherapy. There are often situations that become challenging for them, a therapist can help them gain the tools needed to overcome those situations. An effective approach with children is Play Therapy. As explained by Virginia Axline (1969), an expert in the field: “Play Therapy is based upon the fact that play is the child’s natural medium of self-expression. It is an opportunity for the child to ‘play out’ his/her feelings and problems just as adults talk out their difficulties.”
Once we reach adulthood, we’ve learned to communicate our thoughts and feelings verbally, we’ve also become familiar with identifying our feelings and their possible causes, children are not there yet. Most young children don’t have the vocabulary or even the emotional awareness to understand and communicate what goes on in their inside world. A child would most likely “act out” the feelings that are unsettling her/him instead of verbalizing them. Adults are often confused and unable to understand and respond to what the child is trying to communicate through behavior, situation that can end up in frustration for both parties.
When adults demand from a child a solely verbal communication about emotions he/she is wrongly assuming that both child and adult have the same level of expression and ability to communicate verbally. Play therapy provides the means and environment to allow the therapist to enter the child’s world and get a better understanding of what is happening instead of asking the child to come into the adult world to communicate.
That’s the main characteristic and benefit of Play Therapy, it uses the child’s language, considering his developmental stage and his/her perspective of the world. Play serves to children as verbalization serves to adults; it becomes a medium to express feelings, wishes and perceptions of themselves and †he world around them. The relationship between the child and the therapist is key to the success of the therapeutic process. If the relationship is caring, empathetic and respectful and the therapist is able to create a bond with the child, they will feel safe to represent their feelings through the play materials they choose, how they play with them and the stories they come up with. The bond formed between the child and the therapist is what’s going to enable healing and growth for the child.
How does Play Therapy work?
During a session, instead of asking children direct questions while they sit down and listen, play therapy uses toys (play materials) designed to meet the emotional, social, psychological and developmental needs of the child. The sessions can be directed or free, the psychotherapist designs the play session according to the treatment goals. Every material and toy used serves a purpose and the therapist interacts with the child while they play.
The game and symbolic experience that takes place in session becomes the child’s language, the means to communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas of the world. Symbolic representation is a safe way for children to express their emotional experiences. Feelings like fear, guilt, anxiety, sadness and anger can be transmitted to the toys and dramatized in various way. Toys and the play setting become ways for the child to distance himself from traumatic events and experiences and protect his/her feelings. Another important aspect is that play provides the opportunity to change or reverse the outcome of a traumatic event symbolically. This means the child can change the things that he/she can’t control in real life through play, getting the chance to discover an inner resolution that can help to better cope with difficult circumstances. All these elements keep the session from becoming emotionally overwhelming.
Characteristics of Play Therapy: