Play Therapy is an approach to child therapy that builds on the natural communication and learning processes of children (Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002; O'Connor & Schaefer, 1983). In Play Therapy, toys are used as the child's words and play becomes the child's language (Landreth, 2002). Through play, children learn to identify and express their feelings, find alternatives to attention-seeking and problematic behaviors, learn coping skills for relaxation and self-soothing, gain confidence in themselves, and experience mastery within a context that is developmentally appropriate and fun!
The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines Play Therapy as "the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development” (www.a4pt.org). Recent research supports an evidence base for Play Therapy, including research in neurosceince (Gaskill & Perry, 2014; Porges, 2011; Schore, 2012: Siegel, 2012; Van der Kolk, 2014) which encourages the use of Play Therapy for both psychological safety and what Van der Kolk (2014) refers to as “visceral safety”, otherwise known as a “gut feeling.”
Children seek understanding and mastery through play. Play Therapy allows for symbolization, externalization, and miniaturization of the problem a child may be facing (Crenshaw and Kelly, 2015), which enables the child to gradually confront what might otherwise be overwhelming. Play Therapy can help children to express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings (Gil, 1991). In play, problems are reduced down from their complexities into symbolic representations which are far more manageable for a child to approach. When children’s inner worlds are externalized and shrunk down to a manageable size, they can show us what is truly happening. The symbolism inherent in “playing it out” with puppets, figurines, and other carefully selected toys may be disguised to the degree necessary to allow a child to safely engage in repeated attempts at mastery without getting overwhelmed.
Like a gem with many facets, Play Therapy provides a wide variety of techniques and interventions for the therapist to choose from, ranging from child-directed (i.e. following the child’s lead) to therapist-directed (i.e. following the child’s need through suggestion and directives). At Asheville Child Therapy, we use Play Therapy to naturally and playfully engage children in therapy, to provide children an opportunity to express their inner world, to confidently find solutions to the problems they face, and to help families to grow stronger together!