Can Child's Play be Therapeutic?
by Dr. Tina Rochford
Family Matters, Vernon Morning Star

Play therapy is, quite simply, working with children through the medium of play. It is based on the assumption that children do not communicate exclusively through language, particularly young children who do not yet have the language skills to clearly articulate their thoughts and feelings. Toddlers, for example, who are masterful communicators, rely on facial expressions, intonation of voice, physical movements and postures to get their point across.

In playing house, doctor, store, etc., children are consistently re-enacting their world. As play is a child's arena for communication it provides a wonderful opportunity to understand a child's thoughts and feelings, and worries and concerns. It also has a curative element as play grants children the opportunity to solve problems, learn new adaptive behaviors, heal emotional injuries and achieve a better sense of mastery and control. The therapist observes, guides and teaches as various issues emerge through play. Sometimes the repeated replaying of a traumatic event, such as crashing toy cars, is sufficient to assist the child to resolve a tragedy such as an automobile accident and move on with their lives. Play is also a source of pleasure and joy; children typically regard play therapy as fun.

Play therapy is different from typical play. First, research has shown that most parents spend only a few minutes per day in uninterrupted play time with their children. In contrast, the play therapist has one hour weekly to spend one on one time with a child. Second, play therapy provides the unique opportunity to support a child through a broad range of emotions, without those feelings being restricted by a parental need to contain behaviour, to discipline or to set limits.

Parents, in fact, can be trained by the play therapist to play with their children in some ways that parallel the experience of play therapy.

The gender of the play therapist is important if the child has been victimized. Many children may feel more comfortable initially with a woman, if his or her victimizer was a male, for instance. However, the opportunity for a child to develop a trusting bond with a therapist of the same gender as the victimizer is also very important and therapeutic.

In considering the need for play therapy, parents often ask themselves: "Is this behaviour, symptom, or problem a normal developmental issue which will pass or does this issue require professional intervention?"

  1. Is your child experiencing any significant differences in daily activities such as eating, sleeping, toileting, etc?
  2. How is your child relating with peers, siblings, classmates? Are there any changes in academic performance?
  3. How is your child's general mood, temperament, etc?
  4. Does your child seem to be sexually advanced for their age?

In general, look for any changes from your child's usual self when considering the above questions. Parents often ask what kinds of problems can be commonly helped with play therapy. Children can be assisted with loss issues such as the death of a beloved grandparent, or even a parent, sibling, friend or pet, adjusting to the separation or divorce of their parents and perhaps adapting to a new blended family. In addition, children are often seen in play therapy for problems such as aggression, anxiety, phobias such as a fear of school, depression, compulsions such as excessive hand washing, bedwetting or soiling beyond the usual expected years for toileting control (when medical problems have been ruled out), or sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

In conclusion, playing creates the opportunity for adults and children to laugh, enjoy each other, and express needs and desires. At its best, play therapy can assist children overcome emotional obstacles and learn new coping skills to help them through childhood.

Dr. Tina Rochford, along with her husband Dr. Gordon Davidson, Psychologist, provide play therapy, marital and family therapy at the Couples Clinic in Vernon.

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