What is Play Therapy?

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Plus a Tour of Sentier’s Playroom!

Stepping into Sentier Psychotherapy’s playroom is like stepping into a treasure trove of fun. A rack of costumes sits next to a floating shelf filled with dolls which hangs across from a play kitchen set. There’s a bookshelf in the corner with a beanbag chair beside it, shelves holding baskets of legos, building blocks, and yes, a fart sound machine. There’s a tent to crawl in and a velcro dartboard. There are shelves stocked with colored pencils, paintbrushes, coloring books, and board games.

While it has some of the same elements as what you may find in a playroom at school or someone’s home, Sentier’s playroom is set up a little differently. So, what is play therapy? And what are the secrets of the playroom that make it such a fantastic space for children to safely explore their feelings?

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is similar to adolescent or adult therapy in that it is an opportunity to process, express, and release thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Kids, though, don’t have as extensive of a vocabulary to express themselves. In play therapy, they can express themselves in a language that they understand–through play! According to the Association for Play Therapy (APT), “play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them.”

Why Might a Child Go to Play Therapy?

There are many reasons a child might try child therapy. One of the most common things that brings children to play therapy is difficulties with emotion regulation that keeps them from functioning at school or other environments. Other reasons may include trauma, transition due to divorce or uncoupling, affirmative gender exploration, sibling issues and more.

Bridgett Brye, one of Sentier’s child therapists, has noticed a trend in her caseload–kids who are adjusting to in-person learning. “I’ve seen a lot of issues with managing big emotions or behaviors in a classroom setting after being at home and missing out on so much of that social development time” she notes.

How Does Play Therapy Work? The Four Stages of Play Therapy

The first stage of play therapy is to build connection and trust with the child. At the beginning of her clients’ time in play therapy, Brye’s role is almost entirely passive. She lets them explore the playroom without any suggestions or instructions. In allowing the child to guide the play, trust is built and the client can begin to feel comfortable and safe in the space.

Once that trust is built, Bridgett moves on to the second stage, which is to assess the child’s functioning. By observing their play, Brye can begin to understand where the gaps are in a child’s functioning and pick up on themes of play that she may want to address more directly in the therapy. These themes can include power/aggression, control/safety, and family relationships/nurturance.

Once she has a better sense of what the child is needing from therapy, Brye moves on to stage three, which is the introduction of directed play in order to help the child develop coping mechanisms. In most cases she comes to sessions with unique and stimulating activities that engage the client and help them learn about what they’re feeling.

The final stage is termination. From an adult perspective, a child reaching a point where they are stable enough not to be in therapy may seem like a great thing. For the child, though, leaving a setting where they feel safe and comfortable once they start feeling generally more well might feel hurtful. Patience with a child as they transition out of services is key and “with everyone’s efforts, the end of therapy can truly be a celebration of your child’s gains and a genuinely happy and playful event” (APT).

What Does Play Therapy Look Like?

Brye uses both directive and non-directive methods to help children feel, express, and process their emotions.

Non-directive Play Therapy

Non-directive play could look like letting the child know that they are welcome to do what they would like with their time in the playroom. If they venture to the dollhouse, Brye lets the child choose which dolls they want to play with and which doll they want to “be”. This non-directive approach helps children play out things that may have happened or be happening in their worlds. Children tend to reveal their inner turmoil through their play, and child therapists are trained to understand their play.

While she does not instruct the child to do anything, Brye may make clarifying observations about the play to give language to what the child is feeling. Brye remembers a client who was fascinated by the lava lamp and would watch it frequently. Brye verbally observed that it seemed like the client seemed relaxed. The client was pleased to have a new word to label how they were feeling and continued to use the word in different contexts throughout the session. “He knew [the lava lamp] made him feel good but he didn’t know other words that he could use to describe that,” Brye explains. “Reflecting back to them makes them feel understood and expands their emotional awareness, and playing it out helps them feel seen.”

By allowing space for the child to make their own decisions, they can create worlds that both reflect their own and help them imagine what is possible. Maybe the child’s doll family has two moms, or they can explore what feels good to them by dressing up in clothing that may not be typically associated with their sex assigned at birth. Non-directive play helps children build worlds that can clue a child therapist into their strengths, struggles, and areas of growth.

 Directive Play
A non-directive approach doesn’t work for all clients and that is when directive play is more beneficial. Directive activities are introduced by Brye to the child and they work on the activities together during session. For example, incorporating activities that are difficult for the child and working together to complete them can engage and challenge their frustration tolerance. If a child has trouble taking turns, Brye might organize the sessions into 15 minute chunks and alternate between an activity that she chooses and one that the child chooses in order to model patience. For a child who has trouble staying calm, Brye might use part of the session to introduce a method of play that requires slowing down, like building a maze with play doh and using a straw and cotton ball to guide the cotton ball through the maze. How fun, right!?

Brye takes time between sessions to come up with directive activities tailored to each individual client’s developmental level and emotional needs.

 So What’s in the Playroom, and Why?

“The playroom is filled with intention,” Brye emphasizes. Rather than buying toys of all kinds to stock it with, there are certain staples of child therapy playrooms and they all have specific reasons for being there.

Child Therapy playrooms include both realistic toys (dollhouse, cash register, dolls) and abstract toys (legos, fidgets, play doh). Realistic toys like dolls allow the direct expression of emotions as kids can play out scenes. Toy cars, trucks, and cash registers are also staples of a playroom as they can encourage anxious or cautious children to play “in noncommittal ways without revealing any feelings” (Landreth, 2012, p.161). Moving cars back and forth or organizing play money allow the child to play and move without any pressure to complete a task or play out a specific scenario.

While there are a variety of toys to explore, the playroom isn’t so overwhelmingly crowded that it becomes stressful for clients. A few toy cars to choose from is just as effective if not more than a whole box of them to rummage through. Children who are timid might not have the confidence to dig through a box of stuffed animals or move things around and they should feel like there are less overwhelming options for them to explore as well.

Toys that may appeal more to younger kids are placed lower on the shelves and toys that are more developmentally appropriate for older children are at their eye level. Things like puzzles don’t do as well in playrooms–when one piece goes missing, which is inevitable when it comes to puzzles, it may cause unnecessary frustration (Landreth, 2012, p.170).

One crucial characteristic of the playroom is that it looks exactly the same every time a client comes in for a session. Brye “resets” the playroom after each client, returning toys and materials to their designated spot. The resetting of the playroom provides consistency to kids in a way that they might not experience in other settings. When they enter the playroom, the dollhouses are empty and the dolls are on their shelves, the costumes are hung up, and all toys are back on the shelf. They enter the room as a blank slate that children can build onto.

Another way that a Child Therapy playroom may operate differently than other playrooms is that kiddos don’t need to clean up from their play therapy session. They can if they want to, says Brye, but “this is a different space than home or school and we don’t need to clean up or put away our feelings.”

 

Brye regularly sends requests for materials to Sentier’s team that may not seem like they belong at a therapy clinic but in fact are valuable tools in a playroom. “Does anyone have extra egg cartons?” for example, is a recent text message she sent our team. Egg cartons are great for ripping apart (and many other things!) and bubble wrap, which colleagues save and bring into the office, is a sensory treat for a lot of kids.

When in the playroom, kids are encouraged to be themselves rather than be careful (Landreth, 2012, p.151). The playroom is meant to feel well worn rather than sterile and new.

 Why is Play Therapy Important?

Children play all the time, so what makes play therapy different? Children can’t begin to learn how to function unless they have trust, and a play therapist can be a stable attachment figure that helps facilitate a child’s emotional, social, and mental growth. It allows them to express themselves creatively in a way that makes sense to them. At the end of the day, it helps a child feel seen.

Play therapy may look like just playing, and sometimes it is! But in engaging with a child in their play, a therapist can help foster safety for the child to be themselves. Brye remembers a session where she and the client played hide and seek the whole time. “That is so powerful,” Brye says, “because you are constantly showing that kid that no matter what, you are always showing back up.”

What does Brye like about play therapy? “It’s amazing when you truly let the kid decide what they will do with their hour. The things they absorb in their day to day life that come out in their play and what they say and the questions they ask…it is so powerful and makes me pause,” Brye reflects. “And it’s fun!”


Blog written by Client Care Coordinator, Ellie Struewing.

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