Using Play and Play-Based Techniques in Therapy with Children and Adolescents

Why does my child play games and color pictures with their counselor?

Of the over 500 clients that ABC Counseling has served so far this year, nearly half were under 12 years old, and almost one quarter were under 8 years old. Due to the young age of many of our clients, traditional “talk therapy” is neither appropriate nor effective. Most children, and many adolescents, lack the critical thinking, symbolic awareness, attention span, and capacity for metacognition (that is, thinking about how you think) to benefit from traditional therapeutic approaches. Therefore, many therapists, including those at ABC, often utilize play-based therapeutic interventions.

Play is considered the language of children. Just as we would provide services in Spanish to a client who speaks Spanish, it makes sense to use play with children who communicate and learn through play. Play has many benefits in the therapy setting. For example, many children who are victims of trauma can express, consciously or unconsciously, their feelings, problems, questions, and fears. A four-year-old child who does not have the words to say she feels afraid may find it easier to talk by acting through a puppet, doll, or miniature figurine. A nine-year-old boy who is angry with his parents might act out his aggression by pretending to be a boxer and hitting a punching bag. These activities might feel like play to a child, but their therapeutic benefits are significant and lasting.

Children in therapy can learn new social skills, develop emotional regulation, and achieve mastery over their trauma, all through play. For example, some young children feel empowered when they can draw a picture of the person who abused them, and then tear up the picture and throw it away. It gives them a sense of control that many children lose when they are victimized. In addition, many therapists utilize play-based interventions to enhance relationships between family members. Have you ever been asked to join a session and play a cooperative game with your child? Did it allow you and your child to practice sharing, turn-taking, listening, or other social skills? You were participating in play therapy! Other ways that play therapy can help children is to boost a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem, prepare for life changes through role-playing, learn coping skills to better manage stress, and develop moral reasoning and a sense of self.

There are many ways that play therapy can be used in counseling with children. Reading and writing stories, listening to music, writing and acting out puppet shows, and playing with dolls are common techniques. The use of sand trays and miniature figurines is also a unique but effective modality for many children and adults. Many common games, such as Go Fish, Red Light/Green Light, and Concentration, can be adapted for learning social skills or appropriate boundaries. Drawing, coloring, painting, and other art-based therapy tools are often very appropriate for children who enjoy creative activities. Even something as simple as building with blocks, working on a jigsaw puzzle, or shaping play-doh can teach a child self-control, communication, cooperation, and problem-solving skills. So next time your child tells you that they “played” in counseling, they just might be telling the truth – and you can reassure yourself that they might have learned something, too.

For more information about the Association for Play Therapy, visit www.a4pt.org. If you would like to know more about how your child’s counselor might be using play-based activities in treatment, just ask them!

Written by: Melissa Box, LSW, Sexual Abuse Therapist