Essentially play therapy is psychotherapy for children. As children communicate by means of play, this is the most effective form to assist them with their feelings and understand what is concerning them. Play therapy however, does not mean that the child goes to the therapist to just play and have “fun” and neither does it necessarily mean that the child has to talk to the therapist in the conventional way. Children don’t have the necessary skills to have an in depth discussion with a therapist about what is bothering them, much like adolescents and adults are able to. Play therapy is thus a means for the child to ‘talk’and/or communicate via playing and for the therapist to understand and to ultimately assist the child heal.
Play therapy is a researched supported, well thought – out, and developmentally based approach to helping children cope with and overcome difficulties that may arise in their lives. Play therapy therefore encompasses psychotherapy through various methodologies. What that means is that in order to help the child, various methods are used, which are based on diverse theoretical schools of thought, for example, cognitive behavioural therapy, psychoanalysis, and gestalt therapy, to name a few.
Many child psychologists tend to be eclectic in their approach to play therapy, therefore they draw on various schools to assist the child. Within the various schools of thought various “tools” are used to assist the child. A skilled child psychologist will take the direction from the child as to what approach and technique would best suit the individual child.
Some techniques or “tools”are described here:
For a long time psychologists have been using books to help children with a wide variety of problems which is called bibliotherapy. There are many storybooks available to help children understand and cope with such diverse problems as divorce, understanding death, and making friends. The stories generally contain a positive role model which children can relate to and give them realistic examples of how to cope with the various difficulties.
Many psychologists use art techniques to help children communicate and explore their troubled feelings. Because most children love art they learn to communicate their emotions, cope with anxiety, and heal emotional hurts.
With art, children can express feelings and concepts for which they don’t yet have words for. Some children naturally gravitate towards art or doing something creative and this is an ideal method to assist children with their difficulties.
Puppets are a useful and non-threatening tool for children to communicate with. It is usually easier for children to express (difficult to communicate) emotions such as fear, anger, confusion, anger and sadness by acting them out whilst utilising puppets. In addition, puppets often provide an opportunity for the play therapist to interact with the child and also to add and solicit material as required. For example, to increase a child’s ability to cope with difficult situations in a positive manner rehearsing or playing out with puppets can serve as a powerful example as to how they need to ‘see’ the new skill, whilst simultaneously talking about it and practising it by the use of puppets.
Psychodrama is a method of helping children tell their ‘stories’ and safely express strong feelings. The child creates their own ‘production’ whereby they communicate their feelings. New behaviours and roles are also tried out with the help of the child psychologist in order for the child to learn new skills and develop coping resources.
Sandplay is another way for children (and adolescents) to express what they have difficulty with, the inexpressible. The process of sandplay/sandtray therapy is to use sand along with miniatures which provide children with symbolic ways to represent their inner world. It is a fun, non-threatening approach where children feel safe to explore feelings that may be otherwise overwhelming for them.
Guided imagery and visualisation is a process whereby children are assisted by using their imagination in a focused way to help with a variety of problems, such as anxiety and difficulty with concentration. The child psychologist provides scripts which are fun and easy to use and which help the child master new skills to overcome their difficulties.
There are numerous games, developed by child psychologists, that provide a fun way of assisting children and adolescents explore various concerns and learn new skills. Games assist children with specific issues such as divorce, managing anger, mastering social skills, improving self-esteem and dealing with bullies to name just a few.