Play Therapy…The Path to Self Expression
Play Therapy…The Path to Self Expression
Adapted from “The Therapeutic Powers of Play”, edited by Charles E. Schaefer
“Play Therapy With Children in Crisis”, edited by Nancy Boyd Webb
There are some things in life which naturally go together such as peanut butter and jelly, coffee and donuts, paper and pencils, table and chairs; but one combination seems to stand out from all the rest….this happens to be “children and play.” Whenever we think of children, we tend to think of play. This is what children do. Children play. Children also learn about themselves and the world around them “by playing.” Play increases a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Through play, children develop the skills to solve problems, make decisions, interact with others and experiment with adult roles. Play has often been labeled as “the universal behavior of children” and “a medium for self-exploration and self-discovery.” When a child is give the opportunity to explore their environment and discover all that it has to offer, they begin to develop the ability to react and respond to others. This leads to one of the most essential components in their overall development: the capacity of self-expression. However, since most children do not have the words to describe their feelings, they use play as their form of communication as well as their way to express themselves more fully and directly. Therefore, play becomes an expression of the child’s total self, especially since feelings cannot always be expressed with words. Play then evolves into a process of self-healing.
Play has been described as “the child’s symbolic language of self-expression,” where they begin to learn about themselves and their feelings in regards to what they feel and how they feel about others. Through play, children can also release emotional reactions stemming from the most minor annoyances to the most frustrating and stressful circumstances. Fears, worries and concerns can actually develop into more serious problems if not released or expressed, and given the fact that children do not have the ability to “talk about their feelings,” play becomes the vehicle for releasing and expressing various emotions. Oftentimes, children are unable or unwilling to “reveal themselves” to those they love and depend on for emotional stability and support. In addition, children often become frightened and overwhelmed by the intensity of their own emotions and what sort of reactions these may elicit in others. So, by preventing themselves from expressing their feelings, the child is in a sense trying to control that part of himself/herself which he/she perceives as “uncontrollable.” This often results in the child unknowingly “acting-out” his/her feelings through inappropriate, defiant and aggressive behavior, or by the child “acting-in/holding-in” feelings which often causes physical complaints, isolation and/or withdrawal. In light of this, play takes on a completely new meaning for the child, where under the right circumstances play can become therapeutic…or what has often been referred to as “Play Therapy.” For children under the age of 12, this usually becomes the intervention of choice.
So what is it about “play therapy” that helps a child work through their problems? How can “play therapy” enable a child to resolve their feelings and conflicts associated with distressing episodes and/or traumatic events? To answer these questions the focus must initially be placed on the therapist-child relationship; one of the most important components of play therapy. The emphasis is based on establishing a strong and positive therapeutic alliance with the child where he/she is provided with a structured, consistent and secure atmosphere where the child feels safe, supported and accepted. In addition, the non-judgmental, non-evaluative and empathetic attitude of the therapist contributes to the safety and security of the therapeutic environment. Given these circumstances, the child will begin to develop a certain amount of trust which will allow him/her to gradually convey unconscious and conscious feelings without fear of criticism, rejection or threat to being fully valued by the therapist.
Once this sense of trust in the therapeutic relationship has been established, the child will begin to express these deeply hidden and “unacceptable” parts of themselves through their play. Since children may have considerable difficulty in trying to express their thoughts and feelings along with how they have been affected by what they’ve experienced, being in the presence of a warm, caring and sensitive adult will encourage the child to show what he/she feels through the toys and materials they choose and how they choose to use them. Toys and other materials not only provide an extremely effective way to facilitate self-expression from the child but actually become an extension of the child’s self, just as words are an extension of the adult’s self. The type of toy can determine the type and extent of play exhibited as well as the degree of self-expression. For instance, toys with only one use can limit self-expression; on the other hand, “unstructured” toys can be used in a variety of way, thus enabling the child to express themselves in more symbolic and creative ways. Oftentimes these are used as symbols to represent thoughts, feelings and experiences of which the child may be unaware of at that time. Blocks, sand, clay or other unstructured objects may symbolize such things as people, painful experiences and feeling of anger, joy or hostility, all within the imagination of the child.
Since the play materials chosen by the child allow for a useful and beneficial means of self-expression, careful selection of toys and other materials by the therapist is crucial. Not only does this provide children with opportunities to express themselves, but it also increases the therapist’s understanding of what it is the child is trying to express. When the therapist utilizes this sense of understanding by listening, watching and interacting with the child in a manner which is non-intrusive, non-invasive and reflective, the child begins to feel understood, validated and accepted. This also leads to an increase in the child’s willingness and desire to express themselves due to the fact of having someone who exhibits an interest in whatever it is they are expressing. When the therapist reflects back to the child what he/she is doing, saying or possibly feeling, the child becomes more aware of themselves in terms of their thoughts, feelings and actions, along with the manner in which these are being expressed. They become increasingly attuned to how they are affected by certain experiences and events in their lives, particularly those which in reality they may have no control over.
When children are faced with certain situations, especially those that involve changes and transitions within the child’s life which they cannot control, feelings of helplessness, anxiety, fear and resentment may arise. Play provides an outlet for children to express these feelings and enables them to be “in charge” of unmanageable and/or uncontrollable circumstances. By re-creating and re-enacting these distressing events through play, the child not only can release pent-up feelings of frustration, tension and stress, but also discover the creative and imaginative parts of themselves they may never knew existed. Furthermore, by staying within the child’s fantasy during play by using the metaphors created by the child and following his/her symbolic language, the therapist demonstrates attunement to the child’s self-expression. This contributes to the child’s sense of being understood, accepted and valued which is essential when working with children.
Overall, play provides the child with opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings, to rehearse new behaviors, learn to cope with conflicting situations and find out what the world is like. Through play, children learn that their feelings can be safety expressed without reprisal or rejection from others. During play, children feel free to act out strong emotions and fears that might otherwise be overwhelming for the child. All in all, play is the child’s way to develop an understanding of who they are, what they need, how they feel, why things change and where to go when they’re on the path….to self-expression. A very healthy and self-healing journey.