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  • Writer's pictureLea Ray, LCSW

Why does my child need play therapy? What does playing have to do with therapy?

Why does my child need play therapy? What does playing have to do with therapy?

This is a great question, and very reasonable. On the surface, play does not seem very related to therapy. Play is for relaxing, having fun. It’s light and fluffy. Therapy is for digging deep and changing your patterns of thinking and behaving.

The thing is, children’s brains work differently than ours. Children actually learn and process through play. This is why it is actually better for preschools and kindergartens to give children ample opportunities to play rather than hitting the flashcards – but that’s a topic for a future post! Child development experts have a mantra, “Play is a child’s work.” When a one-year-old sitting at her high chair drops her cracker on the floor over and over, she is actually conducting a scientific experiment to understand the law of gravity! This may be small comfort to exhausted and frazzled parents, but children’s play is actually very purposeful, although it is lighthearted. For more on this topic, check out one of my favorite books of all time, The Scientist in the Crib. It was written in the ‘90s but is still highly relevant.

Children also process their emotions and organize their thoughts through play. When my younger daughter was working on potty training she would spend hours taking her dolls and stuffed animals to the potty. When my older daughter had to go to the ER, she reenacted the scenario over and over, with me as the patient, once we got home. When adults are faced with a problem we can’t solve or an upsetting situation, many of us process it by going out for coffee with a friend to vent, analyze and dissect the problem at length. That’s what many of us do in therapy as well. But kids often work through their problems by reenacting them in play.

Children who have suffered an actual trauma, such as a car accident, a natural disaster, or abuse, may act out the trauma over and over. They are trying to understand what happened to them and express how they feel about it. Sometimes they are looking for solutions, for example when a kid acts out someone coming to rescue them from the hurricane. They will do this in a play therapy room too, and a trained play therapist can help guide them through what they are feeling and come to a resolution. A big goal of play therapy is for the child to be able to relax and play without reenacting a theme that is bothering her over and over. Often the child’s play also gives the therapist clues for what to discuss with parents about what is bothering the child and what he needs. Most play therapists, including myself, incorporate a mix of unstructured play to just work with whatever issues the child brings up, and structured play activities to help the child learn new ways of expressing herself or new coping skills. The Color Your Feelings activity is a popular example. As children get older (9 to 10 and up) we start to use more of these structured activities and might have more of a mix of the traditional talk therapy and the play. But kids at this age, while they are not always acting out their feelings in such an obvious way, still enjoy playing and drawing and would usually rather do that than sit down and have an in-depth conversation.

Play therapy is helpful not just for children who have suffered a trauma, but for children who are working through any difficult situation, whether it is problems with their peers, parents’ divorce, or feelings of anxiety and depression. And then in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, parents learn to use some play therapy techniques on their kids, and kids eat it up! This tends to dramatically improve the parent-child relationship and the child’s behavior. But that’s also a topic for another post.

For more about how play therapy works, check out the Association for Play Therapy.

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