Monday, July 9, 2012

Our Future Depends on Play: Healing

Last week I shared an old post about the importance of play.  Here is the second part, about the healing powers of play. 

Check it out.

Play can also be healing for children who have been traumatized or for parent-child relationships that are stressed. Early in my training as a psychologist, I became interested in play therapy. I read many of the works of Dr. Landreth from the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas (UNT) and attended a couple of his workshops. I was intrigued by his claims that by engaging in “child-centered” or “nondirective” play therapy, young children could spontaneously reenact their trauma and subsequently work through it. In nondirective play therapy, the therapist does not guide the play, but provides a non-judgmental environment with the appropriate tools for a child to play freely. In the textbook Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship (2nd ed.), Landreth (2002) defined child-centered play therapy:
A dynamic interpersonal relationship between a child (or person of any age) and a therapist trained in play therapy procedures who provides selected play materials and facilitates the development of a safe relationship for the child (or person of any age) to fully express and explore self (feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors) through play, the child’s natural medium of communication, for optimal growth and development. (p. 16).
I love the part about play being a child’s natural medium of communication. That is so very true, and traditional “talk therapy” will just not work with children who don’t have the verbal skills, insight, or cognitive ability to engage in it. Isn’t it cool to think that our first form of communication was through play?

Anyway, as I engage in play therapy, I am often amazed by the amount of therapeutic work that can take place while a child plays. I have seen children that have never been able to talk about abuse spontaneously act it out. I have even seen behavior change occur simply by letting a child express themselves in play. Parents can be taught to engage in “filial therapy,” which is basically child-centered play therapy led by a parent. This type of play therapy can help establish positive parent-child interaction, promote healing, and increase attachment.

Another healing option that utilizes play is Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). PCIT is a research-based treatment for children experiencing extreme behavior problems. In PCIT parents are taught specific skills to establish a nurturing and secure relationship with their child during their playtime. The therapist helps the parent and child establish new interaction patterns through play, which ultimately leads to less negative behavior and increased prosocial behavior.

The bottom-line is this: Parents engaging in play with their children can encourage a multitude of benefits. PCIT therapists and filial therapists would probably agree that playtime should include the following aspects:
  • Enthusiasm! This goes back to the point in my previous post about attending to your child in play and being interested and positive.
  • Reflect and describe what your child is doing. Avoid asking too many questions or giving commands. Simply reflect what your child is doing, i.e. “you’re putting the red cup on the blue cup.”
  • Praise your child during play! Criticism can shut down the learning/healing process. Allow freedom in play and give kuddos to your child for the new things they try.
These suggestions, of course, are for parents working with children exhibiting problems. But, I think they are useful suggestions for all parents. If you weren’t encouraged before, now is the time to start playing with your kids!


  1. I really liked this tip "Reflect and describe what your child is doing. Avoid asking too many questions or giving commands. Simply reflect what your child is doing, i.e. “you’re putting the red cup on the blue cup.”" <-- awesome one!

  2. Thanks Eschelle! I just keep a running narrative of what Jr. is doing while he's playing. Also helps him hear all that language he needs to be hearing!


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