When adults participate in therapy, they usually communicate their thoughts and feelings by talking about them. That is why psychotherapy is often called “talk therapy.” Children can talk in therapy too, but most importantly, they play in therapy. But why do kids do play therapy, while adults do talk therapy?
Here are a few reasons why children play in therapy…
1. Children express themselves and process their experiences through their play. From age 2 to about 12, children have not developed the cognitive ability to exclusively express their thoughts, feelings, fears, and experiences through words. Play therapists observe and reflect on a child’s play to learn about that child’s relationships, experiences, hopes, and identity development.
2. Toys in play therapy serve an important purpose. Toys are like words to children. In play therapy, children choose toys that symbolize their inner fears, anxieties, and fantasies. By acting out distressing or traumatic experiences through play within the context of a safe therapeutic relationship, children can resolve these experiences, leading to improved emotional regulation and coping outside of therapy.
3. Therapy is a relationship. While adults experience healing by having a therapist communicate understanding and empathy verbally, children experience healing when a therapist demonstrates acceptance of and interest in their play. Play therapists enter the child’s world by joining in their play and experiencing the child’s thoughts and feelings expressed through their play. This acceptance and communication is deeply healing for children who have experienced challenges in their family and/or peer relationships.
4. Play therapy offers opportunities to practice. Whatever brings a child to therapy, whether it be anger issues, ADHD, trauma, or anxiety, play therapy provides a safe space for children to practice healthy communication and coping skills. Through play, children practice building trust, communicating feelings and needs, cooperating with others, and respecting limits with a patient and compassionate therapist. Children then can use these practiced skills at home and at school, to improve their relationships and their well-being.
Therapy with children will naturally involve plenty of playing and less talking than one might expect. And while play is fun for children, play is also expressive, relationship-building, and vital to a child’s healing.