Play, play, play your troubles away

Written by: Julianne Neely

As “grown ups,” we think of play as something that kids do for fun. But it turns out that play (yes, play!) can be a powerful tool in helping our little ones work through some of life’s challenges.

What exactly is play therapy? As adults who are familiar with ‘talk therapy’, play therapy may be a difficult thing to understand and appreciate.

I am not going to lie, it took me a while to buy into it. I remember sitting in my first play therapy class thinking it was all a little too strange. “The healing power of play?” At the time, I thought ‘play’ was just a way to trick kids into talking. But there my professor was, talking about play as if it had a power of its own. Weird.

Since those days I have developed my own understanding and appreciation of the word ‘play’ in play therapy.

It is most important to understand that children relate differently than adults. While we, as adults, depend on language and rational thinking, children relate through play and enactment. Since their verbalization is limited, play is their initial, natural language.

In order to communicate effectively with children we must speak their language, the language of play. Play therapy operates from the assumption that children are not ready to confront their problems or traumatic history directly. Instead, children have the ability to project and reconstruct their problems and interpersonal issues in a narrative, metaphorical form. They can also work toward a resolution within this narrative metaphor and symbolic communication. Play therapy becomes an effective tool to address children’s presenting concerns. The right therapist has the right tools - a carefully selected toolbox with toys, activities and objects. Given the right tools for play, children will actually choose what they need to work on in therapy. It is quite amazing!

It may look like we are ‘just playing’, but through play therapy children are able to express and master feelings related to their problems and experiences. They are able to learn more through ‘doing’ rather than talking. They are also able to re-experience, rework and remediate developmental disruptions from earlier stages of development that they may have missed.

While in session we depend heavily on the language of play, however we also utilize ‘words’ to build upon the limited verbal understanding that children have. As the therapist guides the child in play therapy, the therapist is able to provide observations, reflections about the child’s feelings (statements, not questions), and interpretations to help children make sense of confusing life circumstances such as a parent’s divorce, grief and loss, adjustment issues, trauma, etc. In addition, the therapist is able to explain patterns, conflicts, and new perspectives to parents as means to develop a deeper understanding of their child’s struggles as well as their strengths.

Play therapy is an effective medium to assist children who are struggling to develop new skills to cope and navigate through their current struggles. Ultimately, play therapy offers an outlet for children and their families to better equip a struggling child to lead a happier, healthier life.

We have found play therapy to be a great option when:

  • Your thriving kindergartener is now having trouble adjusting to the new, more structured learning environment of first grade
  • Your child is overly worried about events such as the house burning down, a loved one dying, the house being struck by lightning, or other events that keep them from falling asleep at night or engaging in enjoyable activities
  • Your child is having trouble adjusting to a parent moving out of the home
  • You are noticing that your child is displaying sudden behavior changes
  • Your child experiences intense emotions especially when facing sudden changes in routine and does not know how to cue their body to adjust effectively

Although I was once hesitant to understand and appreciate this medium of therapy, now as a clinician I couldn’t imagine my practice without this invaluable medium to reach and assist children. If you are curious as to whether or not your child may benefit from play therapy, please contact us as we would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

For more information visit or add us on Facebook!

Posted on May 13, 2013 at 8:25 AM