There is a reason your child spends so much time playing: play is the way that children learn and develop, understand the world around them, and express their feelings. In play therapy, a trained therapist will use your child’s natural tendency toward play to help them process complicated emotions they may not otherwise be able to express and help them develop skills that will help them succeed in life. Here are five of the most important benefits your child will receive from play therapy.
1. The ability to process emotions that they may not be able to express in other ways
Children do not always have the language skills to convey what they are feeling in words, especially if they experience traumatic events at very young ages. Instead, they may express their pain in ways that are undesirable or maladaptive, such as exhibiting defiance, having severe tantrums, crying frequently, becoming socially withdrawn, being unusually clingy, or refusing to attend school. In play therapy, the therapist provides children with a more adaptive method of express themselves – the language of play. Play therapists are specially trained to understand, interpret, and respond to children’s play communications and to increase parents’ abilities to “talk” to their children through play
2. A decrease in undesirable behaviors and an increased capacity regulate their own behavior
Once children begin to express their feelings through play, you will begin to see a decrease in unwanted behaviors. Further, play therapy will help your child develop skills that allow them to manage their own behaviors. In the play therapy sessions, your child will be given opportunities to test limits in a safe environment, allowing them to increase their awareness of the consequences of their actions. For example, your child may choose to smash their clay creation, but will then learn that once they have destroyed what they made, they will no longer have it. These lessons teach children to make thoughtful decisions.
3. Development of independence and creative thinking
Children often spend a large part of their day being told what to do. Of course, this is necessary, as there are many decisions that children cannot yet make for themselves. However, it is also crucial that children learn to think for themselves. This is especially true for children who are emotionally vulnerable or have experienced traumas or significant life changes, as they may feel an acute lack of control over their lives. In play therapy, your child is the leader. For the most part, they control what happens in the room by selecting the activities that they participate in. Play therapy provides your child with the opportunity to make choices for themselves in a supportive environment. The play therapy room is a nonjudgmental space where your child can express him or herself freely.
4. Improvement of social skills and the ability to respect others
Play therapy is about your child, but it is also about your child’s relationship with the therapist. In the trusting relationship that your child will develop with their therapist, your child will have the opportunity to test out different aspects of social interactions with the therapist without fear of permanently damaging the relationship. For example, your child may choose whether to cheat during a board game to explore how the therapist will react, and the therapist can explore this choice with your child. The toys in the play therapy are also specially selected to allow your child to explore different social roles, such as nurturing baby dolls or dressing up as a police officer. Play therapy will help your child to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people, and this understanding will transfer over to relationships with family and friends.
5. Stronger relationships with family members
Although the play therapist is a trained professional, they are not the most important person in your child’s therapy. YOU are the most important person in your child’s therapy, and the most important person in their life! Although you may not be in the room while therapy takes place, you will be an active participant in your child’s therapy by bringing them to sessions, meeting with the therapist as needed, and supporting your child in implementing the skills they learn in therapy at home. One of the most important goals of play therapy is to make your relationship with your child the best it can be. It can be very difficult and stressful to parent a child who is exhibiting distress. Play therapy will reduce this distress, providing you with more opportunity to simply enjoy spending time with your child.
If you would like more information about play therapy and whether it is appropriate for your child, the Association for Play Therapy’s Parents Corner is an excellent resource.
Danielle Rothman, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Insight Into Action Therapy, where she provides therapy and psychological testing. She can be contacted at (703) 646-7664 ext. 11.