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What is Play Therapy?

May 1, 2017 117 7 No Comments

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What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy was developed in the early 1900s by the founders of Child Psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, Margaret Lowenfeld, and Melanie Klein. The preliminary components that play therapy was built from are not all present in the modern form. However, many of the original elements still exist in current play therapy. These three psychologists believed that a child’s unprompted play was an alternate to free association, which was a therapeutic method for adults during this time period. Play therapy centers around the premise that when children play, they are expressing their feelings, thoughts, and life experiences. These aspects may be difficult for children to express in a non-play environment. Play therapy has been implemented for over a century, but it is currently a growing therapy method among mental health professionals. An increasing number of families are involving their children in play therapy, and it has become a common form of treatment in the United States.


Play therapy is targeted for children aged 3-11. According to Licensed Clinical Social Worker Elena Mazza, any child in this age range that has an issue that they need to treat or talk about would be a great candidate for play therapy. Children do not need to be diagnosed with a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression to benefit from play therapy. However, if a child has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, they can still be effectively treated through play therapy. Play therapy sessions usually last anywhere between half an hour to 45 minutes, and it can be implanted individually or within groups. It is a useful method of treatment for all children who are experiencing something challenging or stressful.
     When children experience something traumatizing, their brain development and general cognitive functioning can be impaired. According to psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry, socio-emotional trauma negatively impacts the central nervous system. When the central nervous system is affected, this can relay an effect on motor output, language, and sensory input. In addition, severe traumatic events can permanently change primitive brain functioning. If this occurs in a child, it is especially damaging since it will likely hinder further brain development. Play therapy works by creating awareness, which activates brain regions associated with the trauma. Because play therapy focuses on emotional understanding of traumatic events, it also improves cognitive functioning because children are taught to be aware of their own thoughts.
Play therapy is designed to have the same effects as traditional talk therapy. However, it differs in its methodology. The reason that play therapy is so useful for children is because at a young age, children do not have the psychological maturity to articulate their thoughts and feelings. If they were able to do this effectively, they would be able to successfully engage in talk therapy. As an alternative, therapists and psychologists use talk therapy because children are able to comfortably express themselves through their play. Children are able to set the focus for therapy sessions because they are the ones playing and creating the substance for therapy. Therapists encourage children to use toys and art as a means of communicating their feelings and thoughts. They’re able to create stories with their toys and represent what is going on in their own lives, which is something that children naturally do when playing alone or with their friends. Because it is such an innate behavior for children of this age, play therapy does not usually seem odd to them. Whereas, traditional talk therapy could easily make a child feel uncomfortable. Play therapy allows children to learn about themselves and the world around them in an instinctive way.
Although play therapy can be a comfortable means of treatment for children, it is still critical for young patients to develop a good relationship with their therapist. Children must feel as if they are in a safe environment during their therapy sessions. Both the patient and therapist must be able to freely express themselves in the therapy room. If a therapist is able to establish a healthy relationship with a young patient, the child will be much more inclined to honestly and creatively engage in play therapy. Once this relationship has been formed, the therapist acts as the child’s friend. The therapist is not there to decipher the meaning of the child’s play, but instead, he or she is there to reflect on what happens during the play therapy session. The therapist is there to guide the child, helping him or her realize how they are feeling.
Many people think that children are not susceptible to the same mental issues as adults. However, this is far from the truth. Although it is true that children may express negative symptoms in different ways, it is still possible for a child to have poor mental health. For parents wondering when to start play therapy for their child, it is important to consider their symptoms.

Signs That a Child May Benefit from Play Therapy:
· Long-lasting sadness
· A sudden drop in academic performance
· Loss of interest in their favorite activities
· Unexplained physical illness
· Anxiety or fearfulness
· Irrational, intense anger
· Violence
· Inability to concentrate
· Changes in appetite
· Mood swings
· Social isolation
· Aggressive behavior
· Change in sleeping patterns

These symptoms are some suggestions that a child is experiencing something difficult. If their symptoms do not improve over time, it may be an indication that a child should see a therapist for some form of therapy. It is important to note that many young children will say that they are experiencing physical discomfort or pain, such as a stomach ache. Children will often say that they are feeling ill because their anxiety has manifested itself in a physical form. This may be due to the fact that young children are not yet cognitively mature enough to express their anxieties in a psychological form.

Common Experiences that May Lead to a Child Needing Play Therapy:
· Separation from loved ones
· Moving schools or homes
· Bullying
· Parents’ divorce
· Neglect in the home or at school
· Domestic violence
· Loss of a loved one
· Sexual abuse
· Natural disasters
· Accidents
· Phobias
These are some common life situations that may produce trauma in a child. However, these are not the only reasons why a parent may need to seek out play therapy for their child. If it seems as if your child is having a difficult time adjusting after any new situation, it may be helpful for them to engage in play therapy to better understand their recent change.
According to a study done in 2015, child centered play therapy (CCPT) was effective in reducing problematic behaviors in children. Play therapy appeared to be very helpful in lessening somatic symptoms of children as well. In addition to a reduction in somatic symptoms, the researchers also found a decrease in behavioral problems for children in the classroom. Parents of children in the study also noticed a recognizable difference in their children’s behavior before and after CCPT. For play therapy to be effective, a child will need to go to more than one session. However, the amount of play therapy a child need truly depends on their individual circumstances. This amount can range from only a few sessions to many over the course of a few months.
Although most of the work for play therapy is between the child and the therapist, the parent also plays a crucial role. Firstly, it is important for the parent to gain an understanding of what constitutes play therapy and how it will benefit their child. They should ask the therapist questions and voice any concerns that they may have. Parents should foster a healthy parent-therapist relationship. If there is an alliance between the parent and the therapist, the child’s treatment will be the most effective because everyone involved will be on the same page. And, most importantly, a parent should be supportive and patient during their child’s treatment process.

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