Early on in my play therapy career I learned that asking questions during a play session with a client is frowned upon. I understood the reasoning behind it right away….questions put me in charge of the session and pull the client out of the moment, out of his/her play. Questions also put children on the spot and can make them feel anxious. Just because I understood why I shouldn’t be asking questions did not mean that it was an easy task. It took me at least a year to master the statement driven interaction versus the question driven interaction. To this day I still catch myself asking questions, but at least I’m aware of it now! I teach this concept to parents as well and encourage them to have special play time with their child…avoiding questions during that time. I also challenge parents to use more statements throughout the day with their child rather than questioning. For example: “I wonder how your day was.” instead of “how was your day?”. It’s a very subtle difference but children pick up on these small communication changes. Until you’ve been challenged not to ask questions, you don’t realize just how many questions you ask your child everyday!
There are eight principles of play therapy derived from Garry Landreth and Virginia Axline. These are things I like to keep in mind when using play therapy, but I also think about how each client may need something different and allow for that flexibility. The eight principles are:
- The therapist is genuinely interested in the child and develops a warm, caring relationship
- The therapist experiences unqualified acceptance of the child and does not wish that the child were different in some way
- The therapist creates a feeling of safety and permissiveness in the relationship so the child feels free to explore and express self completely
- The therapist is always sensitive to the child’s feelings and gently reflects those feelings in such a way that the child develops self understanding
- The therapist believes deeply in the child’s capacity to act responsible, unwaveringly respects the child’s ability to solve personal problems, and allows the child to do so
- The therapist trusts the child’s inner direction, allows the child to lead in all areas of the relationship and resists any urge to direct the child’s play or conversation
- The therapist appreciates the gradual nature of the therapeutic process and does not attempt to hurry the process
- The therapist establishes only those therapeutic limits which help the child accept personal and appropriate relationship responsibility
There are several types of play therapy. I generally work from a couple of models including child-centered play therapy and experiential play therapy.
In child-centered play therapy, the therapist does not assume he or she knows about and should, therefore, direct the therapeutic process. The content and direction of the child’s play is determined by the child. Child-centered play therapists believe in the child’s capacity to strive toward growth and maturity and that children know what they need to heal themselves (Kevin O’Connor and Lisa Braverman).
Experiential play therapy believes that children encounter their world at an experiential rather than cognitive level. Play is a child’s medium of expressing his or her experiences as well as his or her feelings about him or herself. Since children encounter their world, including therapy, at an experiential level they must disclose their emotions in more primitive ways than verbal communication. By providing a secure relationship for the child, the therapist lays a foundation upon which the child may build his or her therapeutic issues, test them, then rebuild them in a way that he or she can understand, tolerate, and accept them (Carol and Byron Norton).
Gary Landreth discusses why play therapy is helpful for children. Children lack the cognitive and verbal abilities to participate in talk therapy. Since play is their natural mode of communication, play therapy helps children engage in the therapeutic process. Play is to the child what verbalization is to the adult. Feelings and thoughts that may be too threatening for a child to express directly can be safely projected through toys. Play can reveal what the child has experienced; reactions to what was experienced; feelings about what was experienced; what the child wishes, wants, or needs; and the child’s perception of self. There are many experiences in childhood in which children feel they have little or no control. Through play the child experiences a feeling of being in control. The Association for Play Therapy 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.”
Garry Landreth, a child-centered play therapist, has stated that play is the language of children, toys are their words, and that play is their natural medium of communication. Children express themselves more fully and directly through self-initiated, spontaneous play than they do verbally because they are more comfortable with play. The Child Development Institute discusses types of play. Children engage in several types of play and each helps a child to develop certain skills. Motor play provides opportunities for children to develop gross and fine muscle strength and overall integration of muscles, nerves, and brain functions. Social play helps children learn social rules such as cooperation and moral reasoning. Constructive play is when children manipulate their environment to create things. This type of play occurs when children build towers and play in the sand. Constructive play helps children learn basic knowledge about stacking, building, drawing, making music and constructing. It also gives children a sense of accomplishment and empowers them with control of their environment. Fantasy play helps children learn to think abstractly, try out new roles, and to experiment with language and emotions. In addition, children develop flexible thinking; use new words and word combinations. Games With Rules teach children a critically important concept – the game of life has rules (laws) that we all must follow to function productively. In summary, play provides a means through which conflicts can be resolved and feelings can be communicated.