Play Therapy: How it Helps

Therapy aims to help people with what is troubling them. It is a means of reducing anxiety. Effective therapy will improve how a person functions in their community, also enhancing social skills. By utilising this therapy, coping mechanisms can be learnt and strengthened, while also building up self-esteem. Play therapy is recognised as a legitimate means to achieving these goals. It is a means of building rapport with a counsellor or therapist. It can establish what is troubling a person. It is also effective in revealing resolutions to these issues.

Play therapy can be utilised even with adults and teenagers but is used primarily with younger children. This is because children are more open to play. They also cannot articulate their inner worlds as well as older people. Play becomes a means to express themselves and explore their feelings.

What are the origins of play therapy?

Many identify Sigmund Freud as the first person to make use of what is today known as play therapy. He published a paper in 1909 referencing the use of play therapy techniques. This involved a five-year-old patient with a phobia of horses. Identifying the causes of the phobia and how the symptoms subsided involved the use of play.

Throughout the twentieth century, play therapy was used and developed by multiple experts. Many forms of this kind of therapy emerged in different streams of psychology. 

Play therapy continues to be implemented and explored to this day. It is even possible to undertake a masters and PhD specialising in play therapy research.

How does play therapy work?

Play therapy aims to bridge the communication gaps that exist between children and adults. As mentioned above, children often do not have the vocabulary to express their feelings. For many children, they are unable to put into words what it is that they are really feeling or thinking.

There is also the difficulty in how adults interpret what children might be trying to say. It is not uncommon for grownups to misunderstand a child’s cues, both verbal and non-verbal.

One of the foremost ways that children make sense of their world, is through play. It is one of the ways that they can explore their understandings of their place in the world. By acting out stories in their games, their emotions and true feelings are expressed.

Play therapy is where the trained therapist can get onto the child’s level. By observing the play, and even joining in as is appropriate, the adult enters the child’s world. It allows the grownups to see what the child is seeing and feel what they are experiencing.  

It is possible that toys can represent more than simply playthings to a child. With the correct training, experts are able to see what needs to be understood.

Playing also means that children become less guarded. In this environment, they begin to open up as trust is built with the therapist. This all happens without the pressure of being asked direct questions about their thoughts and feelings.

Some examples of play therapy revealing true feelings and experience

As mentioned, there are various approaches to play therapy. The two main categories of play therapy are child-directed or therapist-directed.

With therapist-directed approaches, the therapist will choose what toys are played with. They would set the games to be played. The child-directed approach allows the children to decide what games to play and what toys to play with.

There are also scenarios where a therapist will combine the approaches. All of this to allow the child to be observed and reveal their thoughts over time to the therapist or counsellor.

One family counsellor offered two examples of how play therapy opened up young children to what they were experiencing:  

The counsellor investigated the family history. It was revealed that the mother had frightening medical complications after the last sibling’s birth. The father had had a frightening experience with immigration.

Even though the girl was practically mute, the game revealed the source of her anxiety. This would have been difficult to establish by only attempting to talk to her about her emotions.

Through repeated playing, it is also possible to find the way forward. For this girl, the game allowed the counsellor to give assurances and show her that she could talk about her fears. She eventually found the assurance that it was ok to be scared, and the fear could be dealt with.

It was revealed that this boy, who had been bullying his peers repeatedly, was witnessing ongoing domestic violence. He was acting out a terrifying scenario where a helpless victim had no hope.

This therapist was able to introduce a rallying cry of “no bad guys allowed!” He was able to teach the boy that words were all that were necessary to assert authority at school. He didn’t need to bully his peers to establish control.

There are hundreds of ways that play therapy can work, each of which can be tailored to the needs of the child. Some children prefer to draw, while others, in time, ask to speak more than play, especially as they grow older. (More details can be read about in the bibliography/further reading section below.)

Play therapy at Japari School

Japari has a passionate, multi-disciplinary staff, catering for the needs of our remedial learners. Many remedial learners experience emotions that are difficult to process. All children go through such periods, whatever their background, but the difficulties that remedial learners experience are often more acute and amplified. This is why a remedial environment can be so beneficial for children with barriers to learning. They will not feel singled out and will have the support they need.

One of the ways we assist our learners is by utilising play therapy. Our resident psychologists will take the time regularly to engage with children who need it. This has been very helpful for our students in determining root causes of anxiety and other issues that need to be dealt with. Strategies that will help them overcome what they are facing are plotted and implemented.

Parents are kept abreast of any developments. This is all done within the boundaries of confidentiality. The sessions are private, and safe. This allows the children to feel free to express themselves in a risk-free environment.

Japari wants to plot a way forward to seeing your child thrive

Japari is a remedial school in Johannesburg, We have a long history of helping children with barriers to learning. Play therapy is part of our holistic approach to seeing our learners become everything they can be.

Come and visit our premises to see what is on offer and meet some of our staff. We have year-round intake.

We would love to join you on the journey of seeing your children succeed.

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