by: Dr. Wendy Froberg, Psy.D, R.Psych

Why do children play?

Play is a central activity of childhood. Children do not need to be taught nor forced to play. In play, children discharge energy, prepare for life’s tasks and duties, achieve goals and relieve frustrations. In addition, they receive physical contact, learn to compete and express normal aggression in socially acceptable ways while discovering how to function cooperatively with others.

Play is a child’s natural medium for self-expression. It facilitates a child’s communication, giving adults a window to observe the child’s world.  The child feels at home in a play setting, often relating to toys, and playing out concerns with them. 

Why not just “talk it out”?

Children, particularly younger ones, often lack the language tools to express what they really know and feel. Emotionally, they are not able to focus on the intensity of what is felt in a manner that can be expressed verbally and cannot engage in abstract thinking. 

When children are in a state of anxiety because of illness, traumatic experiences or stressful life circumstances, verbal communication becomes even more difficult and unreliable. Play can complement language as adult and child seek understanding.

Play is to the child what verbal expression is to the adult, giving concrete form and expression to the child’s inner world when words often fail.

Play is the child’s symbolic language of self-expression and can reveal:

  • what the child has experienced;
  • reactions to what was experienced;
  • feelings about what was experienced;
  • what the child wishes, wants or needs; and
  • the child’s self-perception

How does play become play therapy?

A major purpose of play is to change what may be overwhelming to something the child can cope with. It allows children to deal with anxiety-producing or sensitive material “as if” it was someone else’s problem. Through play, children can attribute their unacceptable feelings to toys or to other people. This creates a sense of safety and allows children to play out problematic material and reduce their fear of the consequences associated with them. 

Similarly, through symbolic play, children can express ideas and feelings, which may normally be taboo. This is most evident when children express their feelings about people who are important to them. When the feelings about those closest to them are negative, they will often be reluctant to talk about them openly, sometimes blocking out these feelings so they become unconscious and unavailable but come out in the child’s behavior. Young children are vulnerable to anxiety about their “bad” feelings or wishes because they often confuse thought with action. Play allows the child to express and work through these confusing or ambivalent feelings. 

Play also allows children the opportunity to reverse the roles they play(ed) in reality. Instead of being helpless and passive, they can take on active roles.

What does a play therapist do?

The therapist’s interventions and utilizations of the play are critical, as play in itself will not ordinarily produce changes. The clinician serves as a participant-observer, rather than a playmate. During the process, the therapist emphasizes the child’s ideas, avoiding projecting their own biases onto the scene. In order to put the child’s behavior into context, it is essential that the therapist have knowledge of normal child development and experience with children. 

“A child can fully express and explore self through their natural medium of communication”

Play therapy is a dynamic interpersonal relationship between a child and a therapist. The therapist provides selected play materials and facilitates the development of a safe relationship. In this relationship the child can fully express and explore self through their natural medium of communication, play. The goal of play therapy is not to “get the child to talk” (although it has been shown to facilitate verbal expression within the limits of the child’s developmental level). It is aimed primarily at symptom resolution, enhancing adaptation and stability and developing coping skills for the future.

Won’t children just use their time in the playroom to have fun and not work on their problems?

Parents may ask whether children are too immature to be committed, active participants in their own treatment. They worry that children will use play therapy simply as a source of attention and an opportunity to merely have fun. However, children can have substantial understanding and appreciation of how therapy works. Just like adults, children want symptomatic relief, to feel less helpless, to make better decisions, to give and receive love, and to improve their self-image.

Furthermore, the principles and techniques of adult and child therapy are comparable in many ways. The therapist must watch and listen carefully; bad observations or unempathetic interpretations can lead to detachment and breaks in both play and talk therapy. Just like an adult’s, a child’s experiences need to be explored fully, and without assumptions.

What kinds of children and problems are suitable for play therapy?

Play therapy can be applied to virtually every child who presents a problem because it utilizes behavior in which children naturally engage and use to communicate. Older children have typically moved away from imaginative/pretend play but find the playroom a comfortable place to express their concerns, rather than face-to-face with a therapist in an office. Often, children presenting problems also benefit from additional therapeutic interventions, such as parent support/guidance or skills training.

“Play therapy can be applied to virtually every child”

As the parent, will I be involved in my child’s therapy?

Yes, it is very important that parents be involved. Parents usually initiate the request for therapy and are a crucial source of explaining the child’s problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors. They know the child better than anyone and can give the therapist valuable information about the child’s development, temperament and history of significant events in the child’s and family’s life. Additionally, parents are often in need of support and guidance as to how best handle their child’s concerns and prevent inadvertently contributing to them in the future.

It is better for the child’s treatment if the therapist can promise confidentiality to the child. However, parents will always be informed if the child were in some sort of jeopardy. The therapist can provide the parent with general feedback, ideas and suggestions without undermining the child’s need for privacy and safety.

Wendy Froberg is a registered psychologist and certified therapist, supervisor and professor of Child and Play Therapy with over 25 years of experience treating children and families. She has special expertise working with children and parents going through separation/divorce.

Dr. Froberg is an associate at the firm of Fong Ailon and is currently accepting new clients. She provides services to children, adolescents and adults and offers therapeutic as well as forensic interventions (mediation, parenting coordination and Practice Note 7’s)