Health: Play therapy is a powerful tool in kids’ health

Candace Brown
Northern Alberta Psychological Services

Play therapy is most often focused on children and youth between the ages of three and 17. Not just anyone can pull out some toys and call it play therapy. A certified play therapist uses therapeutic play to help children better process their experiences and develop more effective strategies for managing their worlds. A certified play therapist must, at minimum, hold a master’s degree in an appropriate mental health discipline.

They also must meet certain educational requirements, as well as obtain specific training and supervised experience in play therapy.

Adults use conversation as a means to communicate with others and express their thoughts. In contrast, young children lack the vocabulary and grammatical skills to hold a conversation; therefore, they use the language of play to express their thoughts and emotions, which might otherwise remain hidden. However, play is more than just a means of communication, it is also essential to human growth, development, learning, and cultivating relationships with others.

For example, if you watch a young child role-play his or her parents, you might overhear the child copy a conversation that you had with your partner earlier. Alternatively, you might hear the child mimic you (the parent) while she or he disciplines a doll for bad behaviour. In this case, the child is trying to understand the adult world from his or her perspective and observations.

When things don’t go well, children will often behave in ways that cause problems at school, home or in both environments. Perhaps, they “act out” by not doing what they are told. Or perhaps their personality changes; where they once were calm, they are overly anxious.

The parent or teacher might notice that an inquisitive child has become withdrawn. There are many ways that children communicate through their behaviours that they are struggling and not coping well with a particular situation. Play therapy is a powerful tool for addressing cognitive, behavioural, and emotional challenges.

The trained therapist recognizes that the difficult experiences and feelings that children go through may not enter their minds in a normal manner and can remain “stuck” or even out of awareness. With the aid of the therapist, the children make sense of their stressful or traumatic experience and assimilate it into their perception of the world.

This stage of therapy is known as processing an experience and it usually involves expressing thoughts and feelings and coming to a new understanding about the experience, which then leads to behaviour changes. In play, children will use their imaginations and express themselves symbolically through the toys. This means that experiences that have affected the child in some way will show up as play behaviours. For example, a child who has been in a car accident may play by crashing toy cars together.

With the proper therapeutic conditions in place, therapeutic play allows the child’s innate self-healing abilities to be activated, which support the child’s growth and development on an emotional and psychological level.

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