Although sometimes used with adults, play therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach primarily used to help children ages 3 to 12 explore their lives and freely express repressed thoughts and emotions through play. Therapeutic play normally takes place in a safe, comfortable playroom, where very few rules or limits are imposed on the child, encouraging free expression and allowing the therapist to observe the child’s choices, decisions, and play style. The goal is to help children learn to express themselves in healthier ways, become more respectful and empathetic, and discover new and more positive ways to solve problems.
Therapeutic play helps children with social or emotional deficits learn to communicate better, change their behaviour, develop problem-solving skills, and relate to others in positive ways. It is appropriate for children undergoing or witnessing stressful events in their lives, such as a serious illness or hospitalization, domestic violence, abuse, trauma, a family crisis, or an upsetting change in their environment. Play therapy can help children with academic and social problems, learning disabilities, behavioural disorders, anxiety, depression, grief, or anger, as well as those with attention deficit disorders or who are on the autism spectrum.
The parent or caregiver plays an important role in play therapy for children. After conducting an initial intake interview with the parent, an assessment allows the therapist to decide the best treatment approach for the child. In the playroom, the child is encouraged to play with very specific types of toys that encourage self-expression and facilitate the learning of positive behaviours. Arts and crafts, music, dancing, storytelling, and other tools may also be incorporated into play therapy.
Play therapy responds to the unique developmental needs of young children, who often express themselves better through play activities than through verbal communication. The therapist uses play and other creative activities to communicate with the child and observe how the child uses these activities to express thoughts and feelings that are not expressed in words. There are two approaches to play therapy:
Nondirective play therapy is based on the principle that children can resolve their own issues given the right conditions and the freedom to play with limited instruction and supervision.
Directive play therapy uses more input from the therapist to help speed up results. Play therapists use both approaches, depending on the circumstances and need.