What Play Therapy Looks Like in Children Under Five

What Play Therapy Looks Like in Children Under Five

“Enter into a child’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet” - Virginia Axline

Sometimes, as adults, we experience emotions in a way that we don’t quite know how to comprehend. When these intense emotions occur, we might act out in a way that we don’t plan on or say things that we don’t really mean - mainly because we have no idea how to process what is happening in our mind and body at that moment. Now, imagine having all of that internal chaos and you don’t speak the language that everyone that can help you speaks.

That is a big issue that we run into when working with kids in therapy. When kids experience big emotions, verbalizing and processing can be very difficult, leading to anxiety, outbursts of behavior, and trouble self-regulating. With play therapy, therapists speak the language of the child - play - and help them process their experiences in a developmentally appropriate way.

Play therapy looks a lot different from a stereotypical therapy session, but what should you and your child expect?

  1. A room filled with toys.

When your child walks into the playroom, they will find themselves in a room filled with some of their favorite toys, books, and games. They might see a place to do arts and crafts, a place to play dress-up, or a place to build with blocks. On surface level, it might seem like the room is filled with meaningless toys. In reality, though, each item in the playroom is carefully selected by our therapists with a therapeutic purpose in mind.

  1. A place where the child calls the shots.

In the playroom, the child is in control. From the moment they walk into the room, they get to decide. What are they going to play, how would they like to play it, and how long would they like to play with it?  You won’t often hear a play therapist directing a child and it might seem like there is not much structure to the session. But, in fact there is a very significant purpose to allowing the child to lead the session. When the child calls the shots, they gain the ability to experience control and mastery over situations in their life that have caused chaos and emotional unrest. The child directing the session is one of the most powerful aspects to the therapeutic process.

  1. Not much processing verbally.

In the playroom, therapists respond to children in very intentional ways. The first way is called tracking. When tracking, the therapist reflects back to the child what they are doing - “You are feeding the baby doll!”. Tracking may seem simple, and sometimes a little silly, but it actually serves a great purpose. Tracking lets the child know that during their session, the therapist’s sole focus is on them - they are seen, they are heard, they are important. The second way the therapist might respond to the child is by reflecting emotion - “You seem very frustrated that the blocks are falling over.” By reflecting the child’s emotion, the therapist helps the child identify how they are feeling, helping the child label and process emotions in the future.  The third way a therapist might respond to the child is by esteem building - “You are working so hard on that picture!” Esteem building helps boost the child’s confidence.

  1. Lots and lots of choices.

Because the child is in charge during the session, the therapist makes a point to give the child as many choices as possible. For example, if a child needed help opening a container of play-doh, the therapist might return responsibility to the child by asking  “How would you like me to open the Play-Doh?”, allowing them to remain in control the whole time. Another way the therapist might give the child choice is by setting limits. If the child is doing something that could potentially be dangerous to themselves, the therapist, or the playroom or materials, it is necessary for the therapist to set a limit. Here is how that might play out:

Child is trying to paint on the wall.

Therapist: I see you really would like to paint on the wall. However, the wall is not for painting. If you would like to paint, you may paint on the piece of paper

In this response, the therapist validates the underlying feeling the child has, sets the limit that it is not appropriate to paint on the wall, and redirects the child to where they may paint.

The child continues to paint on the wall.

Therapist: “I see that you really would like to paint on the wall. However the wall is not for painting. If you choose to paint on the paper, then you choose to keep playing with the paints. If you choose to continue painting on the wall, then you choose to stop painting.”

In this response, the therapist validates the underlying feeling of the child, and then sets the limit that if they continue to push the boundaries that have been set, they will no longer be able to play with the paint. However, by continuing to provide choices to the child while setting limits, the therapist empowers the child by giving them the ability to choose the path that they want to take rather than punishing them.

Play holds the power to heal, to provide comfort, and to help children learn to communicate. If your child is struggling, reach out to one of our therapists today to see how play therapy could benefit them!

Photo by Katie Emslie / Unsplash