What's My Kid Learning in Play Therapy?

What's My Kid Learning in Play Therapy?

School counselors or pediatricians will often suggest a child see a therapist, and a common response from parents is “What does therapy for children even do?” People may be even more surprised when they enter my office, see all the toys, and are like “Wait did you say Play Therapy? Like what do you do, just play? Does it work?”

I love talking about this topic, and I think you deserve to understand how therapy can help your child! Play Therapy is a best practice for working with children ages 3-12. Psychology Today has a great overview of the entire theory and practice.

But to keep this post focused, Play Therapy provides a warm, nurturing, and safe space where children can explore and work through their problems.  

Now, let’s talk learning. What do most children learn through Play Therapy?

The following is a quick summary for all you parents and professionals who are just skimming over resources and trying to survive another day! It’s taken from Landreth’s Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship:

In Play Therapy, children learn:

“I respect myself, and therefore I can respect others”.

Children sense this respect, and they begin to internalize it. And once a child can respect theirself, they can respect others.

The play therapist maintains and communicates constant regard and respect for children, regardless of behavior.
— Garry Landreth, Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship

“My feelings are acceptable”:

When a child plays out feelings with an adult who is accepting even of the most intense emotions, they learn that all feelings (though not all behaviors) are acceptable. As this process unfolds the child becomes more and more comfortable expressing feelings.

“I can express my feelings responsibly”

The above process decrease the intensity of expression, and the child begins to control their feelings, rather than being controlled by these feelings!

“I am responsible for myself and my actions”

Through my relationship with the child and using the tools in the playroom, I allow the child to discover their own strength and resourcefulness

“When something is a problem for me, I can be creative and resourceful; I can figure it out!”

Within the safety and trust of the therapeutic relationship, the child finds creative ways to tackle their problems

“I have self-control and self-direction”

I always say the playroom and the therapy relationship create a sacred space. The rules are different in here, and they allow the child to slow down and really practice controlling big feelings, exploring solutions, and making their own choices.

“I feel accepted, and I learn to love myself”

I talk a lot with parents about self-esteem. So many little ones come into my office struggling with a sense that something is “wrong” with them--they’ve had so many grownups tell them No or Stop, or perhaps they just can’t control their impulses and keep getting in trouble at school. It can be exhausting and devastating (for parents, too!). Play therapy offers a space to rework the sense of self and to heal!

I can make my own choices and take responsibility for the consequences.”

This is especially difficult for a child struggling with anxiety! It takes a lot of guts and self-worth to take responsibility! Many adults struggle with this (I know I do!). But in Play Therapy, I take a role that allows the child to make choices for themselves and then I make sure I’m not making any statements of judgement. We start small, like allowing the child to choose whatever color they want to use, but all these small moments add up!

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