The Power of Play

By Stephanie Sterling M.A., LPC

As someone who accepts clients who are children, I often am asked to explain how a therapist might go about working with children in psychotherapy. The answer is using PLAY as a method of working with children to assist them in resolving their emotional distress. Included in this newsletter are excerpts from an article I found describing the reasons for play therapy and how involved a child’s parents and/or family are in the play therapy process.

What is Play Therapy? Play therapy is a structured, theoretically based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children (Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002; O’Connor & Schaefer, 1983). Toys are the child’s words!  Initially developed in the turn of the 20th century, today play therapy refers to many treatment methods, all applying the therapeutic benefits of play. Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist helps children to address and resolve their own problems. Play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them (Axline, 1947; Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002). Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others. Play provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development.

How Does Play Therapy work? Children are referred for play therapy to resolve their problems (Carmichael; 2006; Schaefer, 1993). Often, children have used up their own problem-solving tools, and they may misbehave, act out at home, with friends, and at school (Landreth, 2002). Play therapy allows trained mental health practitioners who specialize in play therapy, to assess and understand children’s play. Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies (Russ, 2004).

How does Play Therapy benefit a child? Play therapy is implemented as a treatment of choice in mental health, school, agency, developmental, hospital, residential, and recreational settings, with clients of all ages (Carmichael, 2006; Reddy, Files-Hall, & Schaefer, 2005).

Play therapy helps children:

  • Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.
  • Develop new and creative solutions to problems.
  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.
  • Learn to experience and express emotion.
  • Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family
  • Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.

How involved can a child’s parents and/or family be in the play therapy process? Families play an important role in children’s healing processes. The interaction between children’s problems and their families is always complex. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something wrong in the family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child’s problems are so disruptive. In all cases, children and families heal faster when they work together. The play therapist will make some decisions about how and when to involve some or all members of the family in the play therapy. At a minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child’s caretakers to develop a plan for resolving problems as they are identified and to monitor the progress of the treatment. Other options might include involving a) the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment by modifying how they interact with the child at home and b) the whole family in family play therapy (Guerney, 2000). Whatever the level of involvement of the family members, they typically play an important role in the child’s healing (Carey & Schaefer, 1994; Gil & Drewes, 2004).

If you or someone you know has a child who could potentially benefit from the play therapy process, please don’t hesitate to contact me here at the center. I would love and welcome the opportunity to assist in any way that I can.

The information displayed for the general public and mental health professionals in this section was initially crafted by JP Lilly, LCSW, RPT-S, Kevin O’Connor, PhD, RPT-S, and Teri Krull, LCSW, RPT-S and later revised in part by Charles Schaefer, PhD, RPT-S, Garry Landreth, EdD, LPC, RPT-S, and Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, EdD, LPC, RPT-S. Linked mental health conditions and concerns and behavioral disorders were drafted by Pehrsson and Karla Carmichael, PhD, LPC, RPT-S respectively. Research citations were compiled by Pehrsson and Oregon State University graduate assistant Mary Aguilera. Updated mental health classifications and reorganization were provided by Franc Hudspeth, PhD, NCC, LPC-S, ACS, RPh, RPT-S. APT sincerely thanks these individuals for their contributions.