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Understanding Play Therapy

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

A brief introduction for parents and caregivers

Most likely, you have heard of play therapy, but you may not be sure exactly what it entails. In this short introduction to play therapy for caregivers*, I would like to offer you a bird's eye view of the process.

What is play therapy, and how might it help my child?

Most children experience periods of adjustment that might be difficult, such as at home (e.g. divorce, birth of a sibling) or at school (e.g. bullying, learning challenges). Children do not have the words or concrete understanding of how to express their thoughts and feelings, like most adults do, and instead, they may and act out difficult feelings in their inner world with toys.

Toys help children to express their thoughts and feelings, just like words help adults express their thoughts and feelings. You have probably felt better when sharing your own concerns to a caring and concerned person. Similarly, if a child can act out difficult feelings in the company of a caring adult who interprets some of those, they might feel better understood and listened to, which often leads to the child solving problems in a more constructive way, accepting responsibility, and expressing their thoughts and feelings in a way that is helpful to them.

How do I prepare my child for play therapy?

You can use a general, brief statement to describe to your child why they are going to play therapy. Something like:

  • "You are going to see Malan once every week, and there will be lots of toys to play with."

If your child asks why, you could say,

  • "It seems like things are a bit difficult right now for you at (home or school, or some other general statement about the problem). Sometimes it helps to have your own time with someone who wants to see if they can help."

Some children enjoy painting in the therapy room. In a therapy room, they may make a mess. You might want to consider dressing them in older clothes. It is important not to scold your child if there is paint somewhere on their body, as this type of freedom unique to the play therapy space can be important for the therapeutic process.

My child is in play therapy. How can I best support this process?

After a play therapy session, you may want to ask your child, 'How was it? Did you have fun? What did you do?' While you are likely to be interested in your child's progress, asking these questions are not the same as asking 'How was school?' During play therapy, children might be working on expressing difficult feelings such as anger or sadness, and it is not always easy for them to express this to a caregiver or teacher, as they might not understand that they are working on something important, yet. Instead, they may say 'We just played', just like you would say that 'We just talked' after seeing a therapist, yourself, even though you know that your own therapy is more than 'just talking'.

Play therapists also convey acceptance and objectivity towards the child, which helps them to trust the therapist over time, and makes this relationship become important to the child. It feels safe and trusting, and the child would need to know that this is a confidential space where they feel protected. Therefore, it is best not to ask 'How as it? Did you have fun?' You can simply say, "Hi. I'm here, and we can go home now."

Malan van der Walt

Educational Psychologist

Psych Central Rivonia

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