What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach used with children and adults to help them process their feelings about difficult life experiences that are affecting them. Using Play and creativity allows a non-verbal way of processing past experiences or traumatic events in a safe, contained therapeutic environment.

In childhood, play is a natural process of communication and a vital part of growth and development. Throughout the life span, playfulness and communication is crucial to social, emotional, cognitive and physical development.

Instead of trying to verbalise what is troubling, play therapy offers a nonverbal way of approaching the trauma in a manner that could help uncover unconscious processes. Being able to use toys and creative arts allows the child or adult to process feelings and work at their own pace.

With the support of a highly trained play therapist, the child or adult can explore and express many emotions such as shame, guilt, sadness and anger which can support the development of self-awareness and movement towards healthy behaviour, social integration, emotional growth and self-acceptance. Play therapy can also be used to uncover and bring into focus fears and emotional blocks that hinder personal development.

As a rule of thumb, the more traumatic the experience or more deeply it has been embedded, the more sessions required. Play therapy is an evidence based practice that can provide a practical and clinical framework to help identify strengths and difficulties, and implement an appropriate therapeutic intervention that may address social, emotional, educationally appropriate forms of creative play to bring into therapy.

A crucial element in this approach is patience as a one size fits all will not reach the levels of unconscious processing needed to come to terms with difficult life experiences, although the Play therapist can introduce creative media processes to help access the unconscious mind. Regular sessions provide a patterned, repetitive, rhythmic way to access and integrate and build new pathways in neural networks that allow the changing brain plasticity that underlies therapeutic change. Clients, families, caregivers, schools and Play therapists who are not aware of this can often become frustrated or confused and give up (Perry, 2009). In Playspace-expressions you will be supported to play and express how you need to, and guidance will be given to help you facilitate change outside the sessions.

Who can it help?

Play therapy can be effective with children from three to adulthood across a wide spectrum of need. Play therapy can help resolve emotional and behavioural difficulties from disruptive behaviours to shyness, social or professional anxieties and disassociation and withdrawal. Play therapy may help resolve difficulties in children and adults who may have experienced a traumatic event, bereavement or loss or low self-esteem.

Adolescents and adults

For adults and teens, play therapy often becomes creative expression and less like verbal counselling. While cognition and verbalisation may play an increasing role when exploring difficult life experiences, this is done using creative methods and metaphors that allow the trauma to come closer to the surface, and enables a deeper exploration of issues and concerns. Even when you have the language and cognitive skills to process life events, sometimes coping skills are overwhelmed, and if not addressed can lead to problems further down the line. Emotions can leak out and feelings can be expressed in ways that are unhelpful to the individual, but without consciously linking the behaviours and set patterns to past experiences. A play therapist can offer a variety of creative expression to enable awareness and understanding of behaviours and the links between these without the need to use words or think conceptually.

Steps in the play therapy process

Step 1

I have met the relevant adults and the client, case history is taken, consent given, confidentiality is explained, and the financial arrangements are put in place. The first stage concerns the establishment of a therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the adult or child so that trust can be established through the core conditions of acceptance, genuiness, communication and empathy on the therapist’s part. This aids the understanding the therapeutic playroom is a place to explore and discharge past experiences at a safe and controlled pace. I may become aware of specific presenting difficulties at this stage, and these will be reflected in the joint contract that gives a clear understanding for containment and safety during the sessions.

Step 2

In the second stage the client and I will explore through art, sand trays, clay, role play, metaphor, and creativity to access toys, objects and dramatic play, in a more focussed way to help integrate and make sense of blocks and difficult life experiences. There can be much repeated working through themes in subsequent sessions as the client uses the play materials to express themselves effectively. I can be a play partner at the clients direction, empathic listener and audience, Scribe to stories, or witness to the value and importance of what is being expressed. Some clients prefer sessions to be structured, others prefer more choice and flexibility.

Step 3

The goal of the final stages is to develop self-esteem and an identity that is not so caught up in the difficult life experiences or abusive relationships of the past. With a child I can enter more into the play doing what the child suggests, with the adult I can quietly and unobtrusively provide the space, freedom and protection for the adult to express how they need to without interruption. Endings are planned and can include a special ceremony or be open ended as required. All expressive media created in the sessions is returned to the clients or held by me at the client’s request.