During consultations or intakes with a parent(s) for their children, I often get the following two questions: what is play therapy, and what will play therapy offer my child? These are great questions, and I hope this short blog series on play therapy provides the answers.
Children are in a developmental stage where they are still learning how to process their world and how parts of their world relate to them. Children tend to communicate and process through metaphors and play. Since play is the native tongue of children, therapy for children is built around play. Because of this, the play therapy room has a wide range of toys. This gives the child autonomy and the opportunity to choose to use or play with what resonates with them the most. For example, a child may process an experience from home or school by reenacting it through the dollhouse. Or the child may play out a theme rather than a specific experience, such as good versus evil, through playing superheroes, etc. Through their play, the child invites the therapist into their world and into how they experience the world. However, none of this can happen if the child does not feel comfortable or safe to be themselves with the play therapist.
The therapist works hard to create and maintain a safe environment for the child to emote and process in the manner that is most beneficial for them. Specifically, child-centered play therapist tends to operate out of Virginia Axline’s 8 Basic Principles of Play Therapy (Principles taken from Virginia Axline, 1974, Play Therapy book). These principles are:
- The therapist must develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child, in which good rapport is established as soon as possible.
- The therapist accepts the child exactly as they are.
- The therapist establishes a feeling of permission in the relationship so that the child feels free to express their feelings completely.
- The therapist is alert to recognize the feelings the child is expressing and reflects those feelings back to them in such a manner that helps the child gain insight into their behavior.
- The therapist maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to solve their own problems if given an opportunity to do so.
- The therapist does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversation in any manner. The child leads the way; the therapist follows.
- The therapist does not attempt to hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and is recognized as such by the therapist.
- The therapist establishes only those limitations that are necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of their responsibility in the relationship.
These principles create an environment of freedom for the child and provide a jumping-off point for the child to process in a way that makes the most sense to the child. My hope is that, through this environment and empowering the child, the therapeutic process can start and change can begin to take place.