The Healing Power of Play

Play Therapy for children is now available at EMCC. How does it work? What type of issues can it help address? What is the role of parents in Play Therapy? Sapna Mathews, Counsellor and certified Play Therapist, answers your questions.


The Healing Power of Play

What is Play Therapy? How can just playing with toys in a therapy room improve my child’s behaviour / help her recover from trauma?

These are common questions parents ask me about Play Therapy. Essentially, Play Therapy is to children what counselling is to adults. The figurines and toys in the Playroom are the words and sentences that a child uses to bring out their inner world.

The principle behind Play Therapy is that children are able to resolve their own issues when they are given the freedom to explore their feelings and express themselves through play, within the environment of a safe, attuned, non-judgemental, caring relationship with a trained Counsellor. By playing out feelings (tension, frustration, fear, insecurity, confusion, anger), the child brings them to the surface, gets them out in the open, faces them, learns to control them, or abandon them. When he has achieved emotional relaxation, he begins to think for himself, make his own decisions, and become psychologically more mature (Axline, 1947).

Is there research backing Play Therapy?

Play Therapy has been practised and researched for over 60 years. It is a well-established and popular mode of child treatment in clinical practice. Play Therapy has proven to be a particularly useful approach with children because they have not yet developed the abstract reasoning abilities and verbal skills needed to adequately articulate their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours.

What takes place in a typical Play Therapy session? What would the whole process look like?

In Child Centred Play Therapy (CCPT), the child directs his or her own journey to healing. The Counsellor provides an accepting, attuned, safe and caring relationship. This therapeutic stance allows the child to deal with the underlying symptoms through the “serious business of play”.

In a typical first session, the child would enter the room perhaps excitedly or cautiously. They may explore the many toys in the room and ask several questions. Some children may be shy and not interact with the Counsellor at all. This is the warmup stage. This might take a few sessions, as the child tests the room and the Counsellor for safety, to gauge whether they are accepted, safe and cared for.

A typical Play Therapy process goes through four stages – the Warmup stage, the Aggressive stage, the Regression stage and the Mastery stage.

As the child moves past the warmup stage, he may proceed to aggressiveness or destructiveness within limits in the Playroom. This may give rise to intense feelings; high levels of fantasy play and conflicting themes. This may move into the Regression stage wherein the child may become highly dependent in their play by not being able to make his own decisions and constantly requiring nurturing and validation from the Counsellor. Through the unwavering therapeutic bond between therapist and child, the child progresses to Mastery, wherein they can develop a sense of understanding and empowerment over challenging situations in their lives. This in turn can lead to increased self-esteem and decreased distress.

What are some of the issues that Play Therapy can help address?

Play Therapy may be helpful in a variety of circumstances, such as facing medical procedures, palliative care, family issues like divorce or separation, death of a close family member, or violence and abuse. It could also be helpful for problematic behaviours in school, anxiety, depression, grief, or self-esteem issues.

How old should the child be in order to benefit from Play Therapy?

Although people of all ages can benefit from Play Therapy, it’s typically used with children between the ages of 3 and 12 years.

How long does Play Therapy take?

As all children and treatment goals vary, so will the expectations for the time for therapeutic progress. A typical session could last between 30 to 50 minutes. Sessions can be held weekly or fortnightly depending on the intensity of issue needing to be resolved. Parents would need to keep supporting the child in between sessions. It might take an average of 20 sessions to bring about lasting change in the child. Some children show changes faster (6-8 sessions) while some serious problems may take longer (Landreth, 2002).

What type of training does a Play Therapist have?

The practice of Play Therapy requires training and specific education in play therapy. Play Therapists are normally trained in professional disciplines such as counselling, marriage and family therapy, social work, psychology or other mental health related fields. They also receive supervision for the Play Therapy sessions from a Play Therapist Supervisor.

What is my role as a parent in Play Therapy?

Your role is vital. You are your child’s biggest source of safe attachment. Your involvement in the process of play therapy would bring more positive outcomes for your child. At a minimum, it would be meeting with the Counsellor at the beginning of therapy to discuss historical and family backgrounds, the issues surfacing and the goals of therapy. It would also mean having regular check-ins with your child’s Counsellor on updates and learning ways to help your child outside of the playroom.

A child’s brain is still growing and developing. By giving children the tools to regulate themselves emotionally, we are providing the child preventive means to circumvent current and possible future issues.

For more information about Child and Youth Counselling/ Play Therapy, please click here

For more information about EMCC Counsellor Ms Sapna Mathews, please click here

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