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Games We Play

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In our practice we take play seriously. Well, that’s not to say we aren’t having some fun, but we recognize how important play is to children and that it can be a powerful therapeutic tool.

“Play therapy” has become a general term for psychotherapy with children using play as the medium of communication between child and therapist. Despite different techniques and approaches, all play therapists recognize “play” as a natural form of self-expression for children. Some experts believe play is a central part of neurological growth and is fundamental to learning. Play is the vehicle children use to learn, express emotions and interact with others in their world.

We use play therapy in our practice for several different reasons. Initially it may help develop a therapeutic relationship with a child and gain an understanding of the child’s individual characteristics. Play therapy also helps us identify the therapeutic issues that brought a child into therapy. And for some children ongoing play therapy sessions can help them express or “play out” troubling situations and find new ways to cope with their emotions and life events.

Many people wonder how play therapy with a therapist is different from play with parents, siblings or friends. It starts with the relationship. Our interactions with the child are based on acceptance and are not judgmental, corrective or moralizing. We aren’t out to teach table manners or math facts.

It is a unique relationship for children. We create an emotional environment that is safe, comfortable and caring. We use storytelling techniques, therapeutic games, art materials for drawings, and a sand tray. We have puppets, dollhouses and families of dolls. We read and write stories that have a specific meaning to a child. We role-play with children to help them learn a new way of interacting or coping with a situation. We work to tailor a specific approach to each child and his or her situation. Sometimes our play therapy sessions are non-directive, other times we work on a particular area and are focused and specific in the therapy.

Being alert for therapeutic issues is another way play therapy differs from “regular” play. Using a storytelling example may help illustrate this point. The Mutual Storytelling Technique by Richard Gardner is the basis for much of our storytelling in play therapy. When using this projective technique, we ask a child to make up a story, one she has not heard before, with a beginning, middle and end. In the game version there are background scenes and cutout people a child can pick to help illustrate her story. The child tells a story. Sometimes we record the stories, creating a personalized collection of the child’s stories over several weeks.

As the child tells the story the therapist is alert to emerging therapeutic issues. Through the process of creating and telling a story, emotional themes that are troubling the child will emerge. These may include emotionally charged issues the child is not consciously aware of or able to directly articulate.

After the story is told we may ask, “What is the moral of the story?” or “What can we learn from your story?” We can then talk with the child about his story and sometimes retell it using the child’s characters and story line, but with a therapeutic twist. We may tell his story in a slightly different manner, introducing a constructive resolution to the identified issue. It is the therapist’s training and experience with children that takes this activity from a game to a therapeutic tool.

It should be noted that play therapy does not exclude work with parents and families. In our practice we often use it to augment work with families or parents.

Play therapy is a valuable psychotherapy medium for children. It uses their natural method of interacting with others to address emotional issues and offer resolutions.             

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and
Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of editorial@familytimes.biz. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York