Last week, Andrew wrote a blog about the logistics of getting counselling for your child, I would like to provide some insight into what happens inside the counselling room. I absolutely love working with children. I find it challenging, inspiring, rewarding and unique. Often folks ask me “So, does the child just sit on a couch and tell you how they are feeling, does that even work with kids?” I chuckle and assure them that counselling with children is going to look very different than counselling with adults.
Enter PLAY therapy.
What Is Play Therapy?
I believe that play therapy is the most developmentally appropriate therapeutic approach for children. I feel that it is doing children a disservice if we ask them to communicate their inner world the same way we ask adults, which happens primarily through talk therapy. Children do not have the same cognitive ability as adults, therefore, play therapy bridges the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought.1 Play therapy provides the opportunity for children to express their feelings and thoughts in a way that is familiar to them because typically children love to play.
To this, some might question, “Are you just playing then?” The answer is unequivocal, “No, quite the opposite.” There is much meaning in play; Froebel says, “children’s play is not a mere sport. It is full of meaning and import.”2 Play is the natural language of children. Play is the way children communicate. Garry Landreth says, “toys are used like words by children, and play is their language.”3 While engaging in play therapy, the child uses the toys in the room to communicate thoughts, experiences, situations and feelings.
My Approach To Play Therapy
Each counsellor who works with children has a different way of engaging with the child through play therapy. For myself, I adopt a posture of curiosity; I want to see the child’s world through their eyes. Typically, the first session is about establishing trust and rapport, just like a session with an adult client. Personally, I find sitting on the floor and meeting the child at their level is helpful. I have a box of fidget toys that I have available on the floor or table, these are for the child to squish and fiddle with as we talk and play. Often if a parent is in the initial session, I will encourage the parent to use a toy too.
In order to help facilitate the sometimes awkward first meeting jitters, we play Getting to Know You Jenga. This is a tower building game with a twist – each block has a question. The child is encouraged to answer the question and this helps establish a rapport and points of connection. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the child’s ability to direct the conversation to the areas that are needed to be focused on. This is modelled in the way that child answers the questions and, in turn, ask me questions. When I have my initial meeting with the parent, I often share that my trust needs to be earned. Often a child might share a small piece to “test the waters” and see if I am paying attention. Like playing pass with a ball, I need to catch what they have shared with me and convey to the child that I have heard them.
What Is A Play Therapy Session Like?
Each play therapy session can look different. For me, I am all about the feelings. It is vital for children to grow up with a greater understanding of their feelings and learn healthy ways to express their emotions. I try to incorporate as many different modalities as I can. Sometimes it might be colouring pictures of feelings and emotions, other times it is outlining their body and drawing where they feel that emotion. Other times it is playing in the dollhouse and sharing about their family. There are incredible books that provide wonderful language for children as they process their feelings. One of my favourites is In My Heart, which beautifully describes some of the many emotions that are found in our hearts. For the more active children, we can play catch and answer questions back and forth. I really try to tailor the activities to the likes of each child.
One of my favourite ways to work with children is through the use of the sand tray. Picture a mini sandbox complete with figurines to play with. The child is encouraged to use the sand tray to create a scene. The child can build a magical world or perhaps create a scene that is more realistic. The beauty of the sand tray is that often it is a way to visibly show what a child might be feeling internally. As the child creates, depending on the preference of the child, I am asking questions and gaining insight or silently attending to what they are sharing with me.
How Can Play Therapy Help My Child?
Just the same as adult counselling, when I am in the room with a child, it is my desire to provide empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, as these are the core conditions that help to facilitate change.5 I truly believe it is the relationship with the therapist that helps to promote growth and healing. However, that does not negate the important role the parent plays in the relationship. When a child has shared something significant or created something powerful, I encourage the child to invite the parent into the room to see and learn together. As I remind the child, we only see each other during sessions, but you see your parent more. I want the parent to be well equipped to take the themes and language that was spoken during the session and translate that to home. I want to thank you, parents, for trusting me with the most precious gift: your child. I want to work with you in order for a child to learn, grow and develop into a confident and healthy person.
Although the mediums used in play therapy are often very fun, many times, the work that is done in play therapy is difficult – children work hard at expressing and understanding their big feelings. It is my role to help facilitate these discoveries through conversation and play. Play therapy can be a powerful experience where great changes can happen for our kids – changes that may not happen without the freedom and safety of the play therapy sessions. Play therapy is a place where children get to be who they are at their core and have that be ok and celebrated. A place where they can explore difficulties in life in a safe, supported way.
Working with children is a privilege and one I do not take lightly. If you are interested in learning more about play therapy or setting up an appointment for your child, please do not hesitate to contact me through our website.
- Bratton, S. & Ray, D. (2000). What the research shows about play therapy. International Journal of Play therapy, 9, 47-88.
- Froebel, F. (1903). The education of man. New York: D. Appleton.
- Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play Therapy: The art of the relationship. Third Edition. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
- Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.
- Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered therapy, Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.