Play Therapy: How creative play can help with healing

Anyone who has ever attended a person-centred counselling session will understand what I mean by feeling the safety of a non-judgmental space, somewhere you feel comfortable enough to allow yourself to say whatever is on your mind and still feel accepted.

In Play Therapy, children experience this same feeling by being in a room with a therapist who is allowing them to lead the session. They do not necessarily ever have to speak in a session, yet they can express their feelings through their play. Dr. Gary Landreth, a leading play therapist in the US says “In Play Therapy, toys are like the child’s words and play is the child’s language”.

When children attend play therapy they will usually find it quite different to anything they have experienced before. They will have 45 minutes of undivided attention where they can completely be themselves and become engrossed in their play. Often, once a child has established trust in the therapist, they will start to express some of their difficulties in their play. Through reflecting back the emotions, the therapist observes she can help the child to process what they are experiencing. The therapist will also keep track of themes that are emerging in the play to help her understand the difficulties the child is experiencing.

In my therapy practice, when I receive a phone call from a parent I arrange a consultation meeting. The meeting takes place in my playroom where the parent can see the types of toys and other mediums, such as arts and crafts, that are available. We decide in this meeting if play therapy is the right intervention for the child at this moment in time. The child will attend play therapy on a weekly basis for a minimum of 12 weeks. At six weeks a review meeting will be held with the parents. While the content of the sessions will be kept confidential to respect the child, in a similar way to the content of an adult counselling session, I will help the parents with difficulties they are experiencing at home, for example helping to manage behaviours. Often I will be in touch with the school, with tips they can use during the school day.

Play Therapy can benefit a wide range of difficulties, for example it can help:

Children who are experiencing behavioural difficulties overcome their aggression. They can use the space to let out this aggression in a more appropriate way, through play or express feelings at a deeper level that have been causing the aggression.

Children with anxiety difficulties- through having a space to be themselves their self-esteem and confidence grows allowing them to be stronger in dealing with their fears. Sometimes they may discover techniques that they enjoy within the playroom such as relaxation or creative visualisations that help them address their anxieties.

Children dealing with the bereavement of a close family member can explore their emotions surrounding this without feeling any pressure to speak about it.

Children with learning disabilities often grow in confidence when given the opportunity to lead play sessions in this way. Giving them a space where their disability is not focused on and they can fully be themselves gives them an opportunity to become more creative and confident.

Children with Autism build their social skills and play skills through connecting with the therapist in the playroom.

Children with ADHD may use the space to channel their energies into play activities, to discover healthier ways of dealing with their difficulties. For example they may use clay, drama or musical instruments to express emotions.

Children who have experienced a traumatic event in their lives can explore their scary feelings about this within the safe space provided.

Children attend play therapy for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes a child will attend for only 12 weeks with improvements evident or a child may continue attending for a few years, depending on the level of difficulty. Play Therapy gives children an opportunity to overcome their emotional difficulties so that they can gain the best benefits from their social and educational surroundings.

Could we all benefit from rediscovering real play?

When I facilitate workshops for parents on playful parenting, the most interesting part has always been asking groups of parents to think about what play is and what they played with as children.

The volume in the room increases, they become more animated and they start smiling and laughing - that is the power of play coming back. They are remembering how it felt, the joy they had from those times.

Even when we just spend some time thinking about something fun we can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our brains. When parents begin to relate their playful times to me, so much of took place outdoors- making dens, climbing trees, water fights, making potions, or involved imaginative role play- playing school, doctors, putting on shows. All these activities are proven to activate the seeking system in our brains, increasing our curiosity and appetite for life.

Sadly, when I then ask them about how their children play now, a lot of parents note that their children play mostly on some form of technology. There is a huge decline in imaginative play and children are missing out.

As a Play Therapist I have witnessed children as young as six arriving into my playroom for the first time and asking where my Xbox is. Parents tell me that they have put the toys in the attic - the children only play on their Playstations. What I have also witnessed is these same children becoming engrossed in very imaginative play after only a few weeks of being in the playroom.

While there is certainly a place for technology in our lives (and children should be allowed a certain amount of access to this), it should not be taking away from time spent outdoors, or indoors playing by themselves or with siblings or friends. In spontaneous, non-directed play, children are learning the skills for life- decision making, problem solving, coordination and communication. They are building their ability to empathise with others, their self-esteem and confidence and their creativity.

Another observation I've made in my work with parents is that children are over-scheduled, doing lots of after school activities and actually not having the time to play. Thinking back on their own childhoods, adults often relate that the most exciting activities came out of times when they were bored and came up with a new idea. Children need to have time to just be, to discover for themselves the hobbies that they enjoy.

It is really important that children feel that home is their secure base, a place of stability. However, kids are spending a lot less time at home; they are rushing from structured activities to organised “playdates” and not spending as much time finding things that they enjoy doing within their own homes. Having all their activities organised may be depriving them of finding their inner motivation for things that they enjoy.

Children learn so much from parents as role models. We, as parents, need to show our children that play is important for us to. When I say “play” I mean whatever activity you might see as being your “play”- something that you do without a purpose in mind, just purely for enjoyment. If you find it hard to think of something, spend some time thinking about the things you used to enjoy as a child or adolescent. You may rediscover the joy you experience from reading, writing, drawing, colouring, dancing, singing, knitting, being creative. Why not make a habit of having some time everyday to do something that you enjoy, just for you? The more that you activate your own sense of play, the more you will be reducing stress levels in your body, helping to bring you to a calmer place for being with your children.

Dr. Stuart Brown the founder of the National Institute of Play states that “the beneficial effects of just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do”. So why not decide to have a few hours technology free? You may be delighted with the discoveries both you and your children make when left to your own devices.

Connecting with your baby

When we get something new it usually comes with a manual or instructions of some sort to help us understand how to use it, when we start a new job we usually have some induction to understand how to do the job, however when we become parents there is no manual, no induction to what is the most important job you will ever have.

Becoming a parent can be a very daunting experience, a leap into the unknown, a time filled with delight and filled with fear. One can become bombarded with advice from all around, from grandparents, neighbours, friends, health professionals, all meaning well but sometimes just overwhelming you.

What is more important than the “has your baby smiled yet?”, “has your baby sat up on her own?”, “is your baby breast-feeding or bottle-feeding?”, is how well you are getting to know this wonderful little person who has entered your life, how well you understand how they are feeling, how you can see the things that they like or don’t like.

You are your baby’s mirror. They learn about their own feelings by seeing these feelings reflected back in your expression. When they smile, they see you smile back. When they are upset, they see you show that upset in your face and then they see you help them through that upset. A baby begins to get a sense of self through these interactions.

It is important to make time for one to one time with your little baby to help them to develop their sense of self. Research in neuroscience shows us that the most important factor in determining a child’s future is the attachment they have with their parents.

Ideas for one to one time with your baby:

Quiet time: Spending time in quietness together. Watch your baby, just wait and see what he does, mirror his little actions. Really try to think about how he is feeling. Enter into his world.

Play time: Spend time in conversation with your baby- use words, sounds, facial expressions and movements to converse with your baby. Wait for her response, be it a smile or opening her mouth and respond back, mirror her or expand on what she has done to continue the chat. At this time faces are the most interesting thing for babies. Be sensitive to your baby’s cues, she will need little breaks as this interaction is very stimulating. She will look away from time to time and look back when she is ready.

Song time: Use song- simple playsongs such as “the wheels on the bus”, “pat a cake” and “row your boat” combine song, movement and touch and can be wonderful source of enjoyment for both baby and parent. Take note of how your baby responds, some songs he will enjoy more than others. Remember it doesn’t matter if you don’t remember the words, make them up as you go along! Don’t worry if you don’t know any playsongs, sing songs that you enjoy, your baby will sense this and most likely enjoy them too. Remember babies have not yet developed the ability to regulate their own states of emotion. Sometimes they will get quite excited by song time, help them to regulate their emotions by singing slower songs near the end, bringing them to a calmer place.

Closeness time: Use touch- any form of warm, physical closeness between parent and child can have positive effects, releasing the hormones opioids and oxytocin in your baby’s brain, helping him to feel calm. You could decide to have a cuddle time or a time for baby massage. If using massage use firm but gentle rhythmic strokes, like you would use when washing your baby. Remember to watch for your baby’s cues to whether he is in the mood for closeness.

Through spending time doing these kinds of activities you will become an expert on your baby’s unique needs. It is important to remember that you cannot spoil a baby with love; research has shown us that by responding to their needs consistently we foster their independence. Setting aside a time to spend one to one with your baby gives the baby the message that you love them and want to get to know them. The most important developmental task in the first year is for a baby to learn trust, they will learn this when they see that you respond to them when they need you.

It is important to remember that in order for you to be really present for your child, and for you to be able to understand their feelings; you need to take care of yourself. Being a new parent is exhausting; make sure you have support for yourself.

Be playful, you are your baby’s favourite toy.

Building relationships through child led play

Life can be so busy and sometimes just finding a few moments to just be with your children can seem impossible. How often do we find time to enter into our children’s worlds? As a therapist, working with children and their parents using Parent Child Attachment Play, I have seen how powerful being present in the moment with your children can be.

Even 10 minutes a day, or 20 minutes every two days spent one-to-one with a child, where you allow them to lead the play or activity that they choose, can have wonderful results within the family.

It sounds simple but it does take a lot of practice and commitment. The following techniques can prove invaluable:

Focusing: The aim is to focus completely on your child during this playtime. Show your child that you are interested and attending to her by sitting at her level and following her play. Make eye contact with your child, look at your child so that when she looks up she sees you looking at her and realises that you are interested in what she is doing. Switch off your phone and make sure there will be no disruptions during this time. If thoughts enter your head, like “what will I cook for dinner today?”, acknowledge the thought and say goodbye to it for the moment. This is your time to enter into your child’s world.

Reflecting: Really try to connect with your child’s feelings in their play. Reflect these feelings back to your child to help them feel understood, for example “You are smiling because you are happy with your picture” or reflect the feelings of the characters they are playing with (“that dinosaur seems really angry today”). It shows the child that you are interested and want to understand them. It also helps to develop emotional literacy by identifying, accepting and labeling their feelings. If an emotion is expressed and goes unnoticed the child may think that it is not acceptable and may repress it.

Containment: While the child is leading the session it is important as the parent to keep necessary boundaries. Having an agreed time-frame on the play beforehand and being consistent in keeping this will help your child to deal with the difficulty of transitioning from activities that they enjoy. You can help them through this by acknowledging how hard it is to leave this fun activity and reminding them that you will play together again tomorrow. Also within the play session you will have a few rules, for example the toys can’t be broken and no one can be hurt.

There is research to prove that using positive language rather than negative can help children to keep rules, for example rather than saying “you cannot hurt me or break the toys”, you could say “in playtime we keep ourselves and the toys safe”. Remind your child that they can choose to break the rules, the first time you will remind them of the rules, the second time you will remind them that if they choose to break the rules once more then playtime will come to an end. It is really important that you hold the rules, if the child chooses to break the rules for a third time, simply acknowledge that they have made a choice to end. You can reflect that it is hard for the child to end and remind them when playtime will come again. Be calm, gentle and firm. Consistency and predictability are so important in a child’s life and playtime is a really good time to practice these skills.

Also don’t forget to ensure the play is child lead by:

Returning responsibility to the child if they look for you to make decisions, “that’s up to you, you can decide”

Not labelling the toys unless the child does, “it can be whatever you want it to be”.

If you are asked to take on a role, use whispers, as a co-conspirator, “what should I say next?”

Not jumping in to help a child if they are struggling instead reflect: “you are really trying hard... it’s frustrating when things won’t work.”

Most importantly have fun and enjoy entering into the world of play with your child.