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About Play Therapy

Initially developed around 1900, today it refers to many treatment methods.  All apply the therapeutic benefits of play.  Play therapy differs from regular play.  Therapists help children address and resolve their own problems.  Play therapy builds on the natural way children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world (Axline, 1947; Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002).  Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem solving skills and learn new ways of relating.  Play provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and facilitates developmentally appropriate expression of thoughts and feelings.

Play Therapy Defined

APT defines play therapy as "the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development."

Why Play?

In recent years a growing number of noted mental health professionals have observed that play is as important to human happiness and well being as love and work (Schaefer, 1993). Some of the greatest thinkers of all time, including Aristotle and Plato, have reflected on why play is so fundamental in our lives. The following are some of the many benefits of play that have been described by play theorists.

 

Play is a fun, enjoyable activity that elevates our spirits and brightens our outlook on life. It expands self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization and self-efficacy. Play relieves feelings of stress and boredom, connects us to people in a positive way, stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego (Landreth, 2002). In addition, play allows us to practice skills and roles needed for survival. Learning and development are best fostered through play (Russ, 2004).



Why Play in Therapy?

Play therapy is a structured, theoretically based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children (Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002; O'Connor & Schaefer, 1983). The curative powers inherent in play are used in many ways. Therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings (Gil, 1991). In play therapy, toys are like the child's words and play is the child's language (Landreth, 2002). Through play, therapists may help children learn more adaptive behaviors when there are emotional or social skills deficits (Pedro-Carroll & Reddy, 2005). The positive relationship that develops between therapist and child during play therapy sessions provides a corrective emotional experience necessary for healing (Moustakas, 1997). Play therapy may also be used to promote cognitive development and provide insight about and resolution of inner conflicts or dysfunctional thinking in the child (O'Connor & Schaefer, 1983; Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005).

How Does Play Therapy Work?

Children are referred for play therapy to resolve their problems (Carmichael; 2006; Schaefer, 1993). Often, children have used up their own problem solving tools, and they misbehave, may act out at home, with friends, and at school (Landreth, 2002). Play therapy allows trained mental health practitioners who specialize in play therapy, to assess and understand children's play. Further, play therapy is utilized to help children cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to problems (Moustakas, 1997; Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005). By confronting problems in the clinical Play Therapy setting, children find healthier solutions. Play therapy allows children to change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve their concerns (Kaugars & Russ, 2001). Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies (Russ, 2004).

Who Benefits from Play Therapy?

Although everyone benefits, play therapy is especially appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old (Carmichael, 2006; Gil, 1991; Landreth; 2002; Schaefer, 1993). Teenagers and adults have also benefited from play techniques and recreational processes. To that end, use of play therapy with adults within mental health, agency, and other healthcare contexts is increasing (Pedro-Carroll & Reddy, 2005; Schaefer, 2003). In recent years, play therapy interventions have also been applied to infants and toddlers.

How will Play Therapy Benefit a Child?

Play therapy is implemented as a treatment of choice in mental health, school, agency, developmental, hospital, residential, and recreational settings, with clients of all ages (Carmichael, 2006; Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005).

 

Play therapy treatment plans have been utilized as the primary intervention or as an adjunctive therapy for multiple mental health conditions and concerns (Gil & Drewes, 2004; Landreth, Sweeney, Ray, Homeyer & Glover, 2005), e.g. anger management, grief and loss, divorce and family dissolution, and crisis and trauma, and for modification of behavioral disorders (Landreth, 2002), e.g. anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), autism or pervasive developmental, academic and social developmental, physical and learning disabilities, and conduct disorders (Bratton, Ray & Rhine, 2005).

 

Research supports the effectiveness of play therapy with children experiencing a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems, including: children whose problems are related to life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, assimilate stressful experiences, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters (Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005). Play therapy helps children:

  • Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.
  • Develop new and creative solutions to problems.
  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.
  • Learn to experience and express emotion.
  • Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.
  • Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.



How May My Family be Involved in Play Therapy?

Families play an important role in children's healing processes. The interaction between children's problems and their families is always complex. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something wrong in the family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child's problems are so disruptive. In all cases, children and families heal faster when they work together.

 

The play therapist will make some decisions about how and when to involve some or all members of the family in the play therapy. At a minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child's caretakers to develop a plan for resolving problems as they are identified and to monitor the progress of the treatment. Other options might include involving a) the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment in what is called filial play therapy and b) the whole family in family play therapy (Guerney, 2000). Whatever the level the family members choose to be involved, they are an essential part of the child's healing (Carey & Schaefer, 1994; Gil & Drewes, 2004).



Authors

The information displayed for the general public and mental health professionals in this section was initially crafted by JP Lilly, LCSW, RPT-S, Kevin O'Connor, PhD, RPT-S, and Teri Krull, LCSW, RPT-S and later revised in part by Charles Schaefer, PhD, RPT-S, Garry Landreth, EdD, LPC, RPT-S, and Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, EdD, LPC, RPT-S. Linked mental health conditions and concerns and behavioral disorders were drafted by Pehrsson and Karla Carmichael, PhD, LPC, RPT-S respectively. Research citations were compiled by Pehrsson and Oregon State University graduate assistant Mary Aguilera. APT sincerely thanks these individuals for their contributions!

 

Information taken from www.a4pt.org.

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