Play therapy: what does it consist of?

Play therapy or play therapy is a very effective psychological strategy to treat emotional problems. Its application is common in the clinical setting of children and adolescents, however, its usefulness in adults should also be highlighted.

Allowing the mind to relax through interaction with stimulating toys, pictures, or other resources is an extraordinary channel for emotional release.

It is interesting to note that in recent years this therapy has been refined. Nowadays offers great results in a very wide variety of conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADHD) and also in adults who have suffered some kind of psychological trauma.

Play therapy: definition

As the British Association of Play Therapists (BAAT) explains, this approach allows people to clarify complicated feelings and emotions using the game as a communication mechanism. Thanks to this resource, they do not feel questioned or threatened, but rather find a safe setting in which to gradually release fears, tensions and concerns.

Play therapy began to be applied in psychiatry in the 1930s. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, something evident was discovered that facilitated its later development: every child reveals much more about himself when he is in the middle of an activity that is interesting, comfortable and safe. In the case of being face to face with a professional, the little ones are not so participative (Gitelson, 1938).

In general, play therapy is a daily strategy for a large number of professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioral and occupational therapists, physical therapists and social workers. Play as an element of understanding and expression is a resource of great value and utility.

Play therapy helps children have a more positive and confident view of the world.

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In what contexts is play therapy used?

Schaeffer (2002) points out in his book "Play Therapy" that this approach should be seen as a holistic experience in which our self relaxes and connects with each part of us to let ourselves go through a rewarding process. Nothing is required of us; just be and be, interact with a toy, a doll, a drawing or a series of objects that will act as channels of expression.

Children and adults benefit from this ideal therapy to express emotions and experiences in a symbolic way. If we ask ourselves in what cases and contexts it is used, they are the following:

  • It is suitable for children or adults with neurodevelopmental disorders or severe intellectual disability. Thanks to this we achieve that they can express themselves.
  • Children and adolescents who have experienced traumatic events, such as sexual abuse or domestic violence.
  • Loss of a parent or abandonment are other common factors.
  • He bullying it is a reality of great impact that can be treated with play therapy.
  • It is also useful in conduct disorders such as aggressiveness, defiant behavior, parental divorce and behavior problems at school.
  • It is effective in treatment of depression and anxiety disorders.
  • Having suffered some adversity, such as witnessing a violent act, seeing an attack or suffering a natural disaster are other triggers.
  • Eating disorders are another dimension for which play therapy is helpful.

What are the benefits of play therapy?

A study carried out by Stulmaker & Ray (2015) showed something that we should consider. Play therapy is very useful when we apply it as a preventive mechanism in schools. Thanks to it we avoid states of stress and anxiety.

Now, what else are the benefits of play therapy? Some are as follows:

  • As we have already pointed out, it is achieved that the child and the adult can express their feelings comfortably.
  • The feeling of fear is reduced and the capacity for control is increased.
  • It favors the development of better coping skills in the face of adversity.
  • Improve the image you have of yourself by being able to express what you feel and learn strategies to act on what hurts or worries.
  • Social skills are improved.
  • Trust is optimized in oneself.
  • The mood is regulated to the point of experiencing positive emotions more frequently. By promoting relief and emotional communication, well-being expands.

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Play therapy is also effective in adults to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

How is play therapy applied?

Something that every psychologist or therapist understands is that play is the best communication channel for a child. Sometimes, when an adult has gone through a traumatic trance, it can also be an ideal and productive setting to communicate and release emotions.

When applying play therapy it is necessary to consider the following:

  • It may seem like a simple therapy, but requires a high level of professional training to promote a safe environment in which to promote communication.
  • It is done in a consultation, but it can also be done at school or home.
  • The chosen games should stimulate a symbolic exercise linked to the problem of the child or the adult.
  • The expert must know which game to choose and how to present it. It can guide its development or allow the child to play freely.
  • The most decisive is favor a comfortable environment in which communication flows and knowing, in turn, how to interpret the information obtained.

Available resources

There are a large number of resources that can be used in play therapy. However, most of them are organized in the following areas:

  • Role play (through dolls).
  • Games with which to favor a narration.
  • Visualization exercises.
  • Dance and music.
  • Dramatization with costumes.
  • Toy phones.
  • Puppets and masks.
  • Dollhouses to talk about the family relationship.
  • Arts and crafts.
  • Sand and water game.
  • Building blocks and toys.
  • Animal games to channel complex emotions.

In conclusion, play therapy is one of the best resources that we find in clinical practice for children. Every year new approaches and games are developed with which to delve much more deeply into the needs of children and adults.