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What is PLAY THERAPY?

June 19, 2019 12:56 pm
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This article explains what Play Therapy is and how it can help children who are struggling to self-regulate their emotions, are unable to express how they feel or who have experienced a difficult time. Read on to see how working with a Play Therapist helped Max to understand those BIG feelings and become more confident, happy and grounded.

Through the eyes of a child…

Hi! I am Max. I am going to tell you a bit about me, what Play Therapy is and how it has helped. Did you know…

“1 in 5 children under the age of 11, have a really hard time managing their feelings and emotions”.

I am one of these children!

When I am at home, school or anywhere, sometimes I feel happy but other times I feel sad, angry, upset, lonely and frustrated. Sometimes I don’t even know why! These BIG feelings are pretty scary. They are so BIG I don’t know how to deal with them or how to stop them. Sometimes, I shout, cry, hide, hit out; other times I just want to be alone. They can leave me feeling cold, wet, confused and pretty dizzy.

My mum tries really hard to help me. She gives me the warmth and sunshine that I need. She hugs me until these BIG feelings have disappeared, but they keep coming back.

Mum wanted to find a way to help me manage my feelings. She found Play Therapy. This was the best thing she ever did!

What is Play Therapy?

Yes, I asked the same question. It sounds fun (it has play in it) but what does it actually mean? Well, Play Therapy is a form of child psychotherapy or child counselling. Sometimes feelings and experiences become buried and they need to be expressed, so Play Therapy helps me to play out how I feel. Play Therapy is a fairly new idea which is why it seems to be unheard of.

If adults feel emotionally unsettled, you would talk to a therapist, but children struggle to do this – our brains won’t let us yet. My Play Therapist told me our brains find it hard to use words to describe feelings, so in Play Therapy we use play instead. – “Toys are my words and play is my language”

My Play Therapist helps me to understand my feelings and make sense of my world. Play Therapy gives me more confidence, increases my problem-solving skills, develops my imagination, helps me think about others, helps me make friends, gives me more self-belief and a happier feeling in my tummy. My Play Therapist says if I ‘play out’ how I feel, I will learn how to cope better in the future.

Who can Play Therapy help?

My Play Therapist sees other children like me, between the ages of 4 and 12. Play Therapy can help children who are struggling to self-regulate their emotions, are unable to express how they feel or who have experienced a difficult time. She also offers support to my parents, which helps them understand the process of Play Therapy and the best way to support me in my home life.

Here are some of the reasons you might be referred:

  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Frustration
  • Sadness
  • Withdrawn
  • Poor relationships
  • Low self-confidence
  • Difficulties playing
  • Parent separation
  • Loss in the family
  • Domestic violence
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Bullying
  • Resentment
  • New siblings
  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Moving house
  • Attachment
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Low attainment
  • Poor concentration

About my Play Therapist…

My Play Therapist is Zoe. She is a child mental health professional. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Education, Post Graduate Certificate in Therapeutic Play and a Post Graduate Diploma in Play Therapy. She previously worked in schools for around 10 years with children like me who also struggled with their feelings and emotions. During this time, she noticed many children found school tricky. She saw that these BIG feelings were acting as an iceberg for these children – they were in the way. The learning process in school should be as calm and straight as possible, however for some children it was a rough journey.

Zoe wanted to find a way to melt these icebergs and create calmer water.  After a long journey she discovered Play Therapy. She says she has had to do an enormous amount of learning, but she loves helping children/families and getting messy, so it was all worth it.

Does Play Therapy help my brain?

Play Therapy helps my brain to manage my emotions by connecting my right-brain (creative, emotional, expressive) and my left-brain (logical, rule-oriented, analytical) through creativity and play. This helps my conscious, verbal and logical left side of the brain to express my inner emotions, created in the right side of my brain, allowing me to understand and talk about my feelings.

Sometimes I don’t understand what is going on and changes really frustrate me, but Play Therapy helps my brain think of problem-solving skills. This allows me to feel calmer when things don’t go my way.

Zoe says there are mirror neurons in my brain which stay calm during Play Therapy, which promotes patience and concentration. Play therapy creates new pathways in my brain and releases the happy hormone Oxytocin. This is all happening without me being consciously aware – it’s a magical process.

But it’s just play, I hear you say?

Zoe says that play is the foundation of learning life skills. She tells me I can learn so much about myself during Play Therapy. When the therapeutic relationship has formed and creativity and play are used, my unconscious mind will appear in the play which allows the conscious mind to become more self-aware. Sometimes I express some sad feelings but these feelings, which are in my unconscious mind, need to appear in order for me to develop self-acceptance and understanding and feel more happy and grounded. It’s pretty BIG stuff isn’t it? There is much more to Play Therapy than meets the eye.

What can I do in Play Therapy?

In Play Therapy I can play however I want. There are only three rules. No hurts to me, no hurts to my Play Therapist and no hurts to the things around me. She has to set these boundaries to keep me and her safe. Some sessions she may lead a task, other times I lead – it’s nice when I’m given this freedom – either way she understands me, accepts me and believes in me.

The fun bit – I get to play with whatever toys I want. The Play Therapy room is like a treasure box full of sparkling gems, gold coins and treasure! There are many therapeutic toys I can play with; I can create magical fairy gardens in the sand tray, I can create battles with the army men, I can use the puppets to chase each other, I can dress up as a police man, I can mix colours, I can dance, I can blow bubbles and most importantly I can get messy!

How long does Play Therapy last?

My Play Therapy session is 40 minutes. I go once a week, at the same time and same place. It can unsettle the process if I miss sessions, but things happen and sometimes life cannot be helped – Zoe understands this. She offers short term intervention, which is 12 sessions and anything over this is long term. The length of intervention depends on the child’s referral reasons.

Does anyone know what happens in my sessions?

So, just like adult counselling, Play Therapy has the same principles. My Play therapist has a duty to respect my feelings and expressions, and the sessions are confidential to me. Imagine you went to see a Therapist and then after the session they began to tell people about what you said – you wouldn’t trust your Therapist and then the process wouldn’t work. For the Play Therapy process to work, sessions must be confidential. This doesn’t mean she won’t share anything with my parents; it just means she may ask me first.

During session, my expressions and feelings are held by my Play Therapist, which is a very important job. Holding all these feelings can sometimes leave her feeling full, so she sees her own supervisor to create more room inside for my next session. Her supervisor is a highly qualified Play Therapist who guides her. She says this is a natural process and everything is still confidential. Remember, Play Therapy is a safe and protected space for me to explore my feelings and work through them. Sometimes we may not even speak in session – Play Therapy is done through play!

All good things come to an end…

One day during a Play Therapy session, I noticed I felt as though I wasn’t really interested in the toys, and for the first time my play was less expressive. Instead of mixing colours and making lots of mess, I began to paint a picture of my family. For the first time, I actually felt like I didn’t want to do anything. I noticed I didn’t need to do the things I used to do anymore. I began to feel more settled with myself. I decided on my own that maybe it was time for me to end. Play Therapy helped me to make sense of my world and the big, cold scary iceberg didn’t seem that big anymore. It seemed to have melted and the waves in the ocean had become calmer. Life seemed more manageable now.

Play Therapy is a special experience for any child – the relationship is magical and the process is empowering.

If you know a child who has BIG feelings, finds life hard at times and needs a little sprinkle of Play Therapy, contact: referrals@healingheartsplaytherapy.co.uk

www.healingheartsplaytherapy.co.uk

@healingheartsplaytherapy (Follow me on Facebook and Instagram, for therapeutic parenting support, playful parenting, latest articles, videos and much more…

Written by

Zoe Donovan BA, PgCert, PgDip, PTUK

Play Therapist