​​Healing With Play Therapy: How It Works, the Benefits, and Why It’s Not Just Playing

As an adult, if you’re going through emotional or mental health issues, you can typically recognize that in one way or another. Even if it takes some time, you’re able to share your emotions and work through what you’re feeling with the right environment and the right guidance. 

Children, on the other hand, struggle with this. They may not be able to express themselves the way you can, because they’re still growing and learning to develop effective communication skills. 

This is where play therapy comes in. First, it’s important to understand that there’s a reason playing as a child is something that comes very naturally.  It’s a fundamental building block that affects overall happiness and wellbeing.

Playing is fun, it lifts a child’s spirit and expands self-expression.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a type of therapy that uses play to help children deal with mental and emotional health issues. By using play, children are able to explore and share their feelings with both the therapist and their parents/family. 

These sessions may look like ordinary play-time, but they’re so much more than that. 

Children use play to express themselves and explore the world around them, and play therapy takes advantage of this. 

A play therapist will guide your child through play to learn coping and communication skills, how to turn around inappropriate behaviors, and how to express themselves in a healthy way. The therapist will use this safe and loving environment to observe and gain insights into your child’s struggles. 

Benefits of Play Therapy

Studies have shown that play therapy is a vibrant and viable resource to reduce suffering in children. According to Play Therapy International, up to 71% of children in play therapy experience positive change.

Here are some of the benefits of play therapy your child may experience:

  • Learning to communicate effectively
  • Developing strong social skills
  • Building a feeling of safety
  • Growing self-respect
  • Improving empahty towards others
  • Building stronger family relationships
  • Developing language and fine motor skills 

These benefits show that play therapy isn’t just playing. It’s a way for your child to express themselves and walk into healing.

How Does Play Therapy Work? 

The truth is, children don’t have the language skills that adults have. A child may feel something or have seen something traumatic, but not know how to express it to an adult. 

Children understand and communicate with the world by playing. They are free to act out, imagine, and create using their emotions. Toys can be the channel through which they speak. But of course, you have to know what to look for. 

Sometimes adults don’t see the verbal or nonverbal cues from a child who is struggling. Or if they do see them, they may not understand the behavior or may misinterpret it.

This is where the therapist comes in. A play therapist joins your child in their world, on their level of understanding. 

As they play, your child will start to open up. Their walls will come down. They get to choose how to communicate (with toys, dress-up, drawing, etc.), and they’re allowed to do this in their own time because play therapy isn’t forced.

After assessing your child in this safe environment, the therapist will formulate a plan and set therapeutic goals. This is where it’s important for you as a parent/caregiver to be involved and share your concerns and struggles. Therapy works best when parents and the therapist work together.

Play therapists pay close attention to the details that are vital to your child’s healing and growth, such as:

  • How they act when separated from their parents 
  • How they respond to their parent’s return
  • How they interact with different toys
  • How their behavior changes with each passing session

All of these observations are used as a guide for the next steps. Because each child is different, so is their therapy. It’s individualized to their unique needs. 

As therapy moves forward, goals and plans will be reassessed and modified to help your child to grow and heal.

Play Therapy Approaches

There are two main approaches used by play therapists:

1. Directive Play Therapy

In directive play therapy, the therapist plans specific goals and interventions ahead of each session. This allows the therapist to direct conversation and play in a way that will best benefit your child and address their struggles. This also helps to create a safe environment that’s suited specifically to their needs.

Oftentimes, the toys and activities are intentionally chosen before the session in an attempt to discuss current problems your child is facing. 

Some of these purposeful activities could include structured games and make-believe that are led by the therapist. 

2. Non-Directive Play Therapy

In non-directive play therapy, the therapist lets your child take the lead and observes. The therapist is willing to go wherever your child’s play takes them.

This environment lets your child reveal what’s bothering them in an organic way. There’s no pre-planned conversation by the therapist. Instead, they build a safe space for your child to be authentic and share naturally. 

Some of these activities could include playing with sensory toys (water, playdoh, sand), drawing, coloring, sculpting, or even playing with stuffed animals.

Play Therapy Techniques

After deciding what approach your therapist will use (directive or non-directive), they will decide what techniques to use based on your child’s individual needs. 

The therapist may use techniques that include:

  • Storytelling
  • Dress up or role-playing
  • Toy phones
  • Creative visualization
  • Stuffed animals
  • Action figures
  • Water and sand play
  • Musical instruments
  • Arts and crafts
  • Blocks and building toys
  • Dance
  • Hide and Seek
  • Strategy games (like checkers)

As your child grows more comfortable, the play therapist will introduce more specific toys and activities that target the struggles your child is dealing with. 

Family Involvement

Families play such an important role when it comes to a child’s healing process. No matter what the issues are or what obstacles need to be overcome, your child will heal faster when your family works together. 

The therapist will communicate with you, the parents or caregivers, on the plan and goals for your child’s therapy so their healing process is a cohesive effort. Then the therapist will make decisions on how and when to involve your family (or specific family members) during therapy. 

What Play Therapy Can Help With

Play therapy is helpful for all ages, but especially for children who struggle with communication and expressing themselves. It’s particularly helpful to those who have experienced some kind of trauma or stress in their lives. 

Play therapy can help your child struggling with: 

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Traumatic events
  • Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder (ADHD)
  • Chronic illness
  • Behavioral problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Family changes (divorce, separation, death of a loved one)
  • Domestic abuse and violence
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse

This type of therapy is a tool that can help your child overcome hardships and obstacles. By improving your child’s emotional and social skills, you’re also helping to develop their language and communication skills as well.

Find a Play Therapist

Find a therapist that utilizes play therapy in their practice. A therapist that will foster your child’s natural way of communication and help them navigate the world at their level. 

My mission is to help your child overcome hardships and thrive in an authentic life of acceptance, connection, and healing. Finding Grace Counseling is dedicated to providing the best care out there because you and your loved ones deserve it!

If you or someone you know is interested in play therapy for children, you can learn more about my services at HERE.

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