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What is Play Therapy?

Let’s start off with a loaded question, shall we? What in the world is play therapy?!

When I tell people that I am a play therapist, I am generally the recipient of a funny look. I can tell that people are thinking, “so you’re actually paid to sit around and play with kids all day?” Well, yeah, I guess….However, there is so much more to play therapy than what you can see on the surface.

The start of play therapy began back in the 1940’s with the grandmother of play therapy, Virginia Axline. Axline was a student of psychologist Carl Rogers, who developed person-centered or client-centered therapy, which is also known as Rogerian therapy. Client-centered therapy states that therapy should consist of three core conditions: congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. Axline adapted Rogers’ theory and geared it towards children, calling it child-centered play therapy (CCPT). Axline additionally developed the eight basic principals of play therapy, which all child-centered play therapists follow (a blog on this to come soon!). The foundational reason to use play therapy versus other forms of therapy when working with children is that it is developmentally appropriate. Children don’t have the cognitive ability to verbalize and explain their world in the way that adults do. That being said, children are able to communicate through play. As I tell many parents and colleagues, children speak the language of play and I am fluent in the language.

When most therapists state that they use play therapy as a therapeutic intervention, they typically mean that they are practicing child-centered play therapy. That being said, there are many other theoretical orientations that utilize play therapy, including CBT, Gestalt, Experiential, Adlerian, and many more. CCPT is a way of conducting play therapy that is non-directive. What non-directive means is that the therapist is allowing the child to lead the session. While a CCPT therapist will set limits and boundaries surrounding the safety of the child, they do not tell the child what to do, ask questions, or give praise (more on this to come!). Non-directive play therapy is so powerful because it gives children something that they don’t have anywhere else in their lives: CONTROL! When children have that sense of control, they will feel comfortable sharing with the therapist their worries, fears, dreams, hopes and desires. It is truly magical. On the other side of the spectrum is directive play therapy. Directive play therapy is therapy in which the therapist is leading the session and telling the child what to do. There are pro’s and con’s to both directive and non-directive play therapy and its an ongoing debate in the play therapy community which form of play is the most beneficial. Personally, I have seen benefits from both directive and non-directive play therapy and utilize both in my work with clients.

Let’s move on back to CCPT! In-session, a CCPT therapist verbalizes by tracking and making reflections. Tracking is simply following the child’s play (or non-play). Think of it as a sports announcer. For example, tracking might sound like…..

“You’re making those trucks hit one another” 

“You’re moving your hands slowly through the sand”

“You’re searching through the box to find just the right toy”

It’s common for children to say “why do you talk so funny?” when therapists are tracking. Over time, however, tracking will become more natural for the therapist to say and more comfortable for kiddos to hear.

Now onto reflections! Reflective statements are used in nearly all forms of counseling, and all populations, including children, adolescents, and adults. Reflecting is simply recognizing another person’s feelings. When working with children, you might assume that you want reflective statements with basic feelings, such as “happy”, “sad”, and “mad.” However, it is incredibly beneficial in working with children to use more advanced feeling words in order to increase their emotional vocabulary. This will allow children to better express their experience when communicating with others. Reflections may sound like…..

“You are just so angry right now!”

“You feel calm playing in the sand”

“You are so proud of yourself!”

The last aspect of CCPT that I am going to touch on in this post is themes. As I stated previously, children speak the language of play. One of the great leaders in play therapy, Gary Landreth (1991) states “Toys are children’s words and play is their language.” Play therapists are trained in understanding the language of play and they do so by identifying themes. There are many different themes that can come up in play including safety/protection, limits and boundaries, anxiety, relationship/connection, regression, perfectionism, nurturance, aggression, competence, incompetence, self-esteem, and confusion to just name a few. Themes assist the therapist in understanding what is going on in the child’s world, how the child is progressing through therapy, and can additionally help when consulting with important adults in the child’s life.

I feel that I have ended this post with more questions than answers, but I hope to address all of those cliff hangers soon! In the meantime, PLAY ON!

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