En Garde!: Can Play be Therapeutic?

I sit quietly on the brightly-carpeted floor waiting to see what toy or game Mark will pick during our first play therapy session together. Mark soon discovers the shields and swords, crown, knight helmet and dragon puppet. His shyness dissipates as he quickly begins to assign roles: I’m the king, he’s the knight and we’re in a sword fight to see who gets the honor of slaying the dragon.

The “RPT” letters at the end of my name indicate I’m a Registered Play Therapist with the National Association of Play Therapists (www.a4pt.org). The word play sometimes worries parents. Don’t kids with problems need “a good talking to?” Dr. Garry Landreth, an internationally known expert in play therapy, famously wrote “toys are like the child’s words and play is the child’s language.” As adults we often process emotions and solve problems verbally. However as children it is developmentally appropriate to process feelings and find solutions through play. Personally I use a combination of both play and talk to help kids change their behaviors.

Mark’s parents and I have already set goals for Mark: learn conflict resolution and problem solving skills to improve his peer relationships. We’ll know the goal has been reached when Mark stops getting into physical fights, makes friends, and is no longer being bullied. Mark chooses fighting toys (swords and shields) to learn in relationship with me—how do you play with others? As a play therapist my focus with Mark is to help him engage in problem solving techniques as we’re sword fighting, making the process evident so he can begin to extrapolate how to positively interact with his peers. I help him notice, when does he talk to me? Initiate? Defend? Verbalize the rules? Break the rules? Ask for help? Stop? Start again? How does he feel when he’s winning? Losing? Cooperating? During our play I am constantly assessing his actions and adjusting my words and behaviors to create an environment where he can learn the skills he needs. Once he applies these skills during the play therapy session his peer relationships shift and he no longer needs counseling sessions.

This week take some time to notice how the kids in your life use play to learn and grow!