Sometimes children go through difficult passages in their lives. It therefore becomes prudent to provide them with effective ways of helping them ease through these passages. Infact, children are good teachers and they know what they want and what is right for them (Kottman, 1993). All they need is just space to do it. Play therefore becomes very important in releasing these pent-up emotions, feelings of anxiety, fear disappointment, aggression and insecurity (Chethik, Morton. 2000). This brings us to the issue of play therapy.
What is play therapy? Play therapy refers to a method of psychotherapy with children in which a child’s fantasies and symbolic meanings of his/her play are used as a medium for understanding and communication with him/her (Landreth, 2002). Through this method, the child is helped to control his/her emotions, thoughts, wishes and needs using games, toys and mediums such as clay, drawings and paint. By doing so, the child is helped to understand the muddled feelings and upsetting events that he/she has not had a chance or skill to sort out properly.
Thus through this symbolic representation, the child gains a sense of control over events that in reality, seem uncontrollable. Unlike in adult therapy where one has to explain what is troubling him, children use play to communicate at their own level and pace without any feeling of interrogation or threat using toys as their words and play as their language (Landreth, 2002). Rationale for play therapy In play therapy, the symbolic of function play is vital in providing children with a means of expressing their inner world.
This use of play therapy is rooted on a development understanding of children. According to Piaget (1962), children at the pre-operational stage (2-7 yrs) are acquiring language in which symbols represent mental objects. A child’s play in this stage becomes increasingly imaginary and fantasy-driven. The child is internally improving his/her understanding and knowledge but lacks the external ability to communicate this enhanced way of processing within the world.
Play thus becomes the medium through which the child communicates this internal awareness of self to others. Piaget further asserts that during the concrete operational state (8-11 yrs) the child grows in his/her personal ability to reason logically and organize thoughts coherently. He/she is unable to express certain complicated emotions such as resentment or guilt due to the need for abstract thought to understand them. Play then helps the child bridge the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought.
Landreth (2002) identifies basic principles necessary in play therapy. These include that children’s natural language is play, that they have an inherent tendency towards growth and maturity and lastly, and are themselves capable of positive self-direction since they posses the capacity to act responsibly. Play is a natural language from which children express themselves (Landreth, 2002). And as stated earlier, developmentally, it bridges the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought.
Children gain a sense of control through play and also learn coping skills (Chethik, Morton. 2000). At times, children also receive other types of treatment. Children for instance that are unable to control their attention impulses, have a tendency to react violently, or experience severe anxiety would be included in play therapy. The therapy addresses the child’s psychological symptoms (Chethik, Morton. 2000). The child will also receive play therapy to alleviate low self-esteem feelings, excessive worry, incompetence and helplessness (Chethik, Morton. 000).
In play therapy, toys are viewed as the child’s words and play as the child’s language – a language of activity. Play is then to children what psychotherapy is to adults. The use of toys enables the child to transfer his anxieties, fears, fantasies from his own feelings and guilt to objects rather then people. Through this process, the safety of children from their own feelings is guaranteed because it enables them to distance themselves from those traumatic experiences.
By acting out a frightening experience symbolically through play, or reversing the outcome in play activity, the child moves towards an inner resolution and then he/she is able to cope with or adjust to problems (Axline, 1989). Through the play processes, the child is allowed to consider new possibilities not possible in reality thus greatly expanding the expression of self (Bratton. Et al. 2005). Also, within the safety of the play therapy experience, the child explores the unfamiliar and develops a knowing that is both experiential – feelings and cognitive.
In a nutshell, the unfamiliar becomes familiar and the child expresses outwardly what takes place inwardly. Therefore, a major function of play in play therapy is the changing of what may be unmanageable in real life to a manageable situation via symbolic representation, through which the child is provided with opportunities for learning to cope (Axline, 1989). The process of play therapy The initial focus of therapy is in building a relationship between a child and the therapist.
This relationship is what provides dynamic growth and healing for the child. It is therefore a very important tool because a child will readily express himself every time he/she feels respected and accepted. According to Landreth (1991), there are principles that should provide guidelines for establishment of a therapeutic relationship. Some of the guidelines include that the therapist is genuinely interested in the child. Also, the therapist experiences unqualified acceptance of the child and does not wish that the child were different in some way.
He further creates a feeling of safety and permissiveness in the relationship so the child feels free to explore and express himself/herself totally. Landreth further asserts that the therapist should always be sensitive to the child’s feelings and gently reflect those feelings in a manner that encourages the child to develop self-understanding (Landreth, 2002). Additionally, the therapist should deeply believe in the child’s capacity to act responsibly and respect the child’s ability to solve personal problems and give him the opportunity to do so.
He should also trust the child’s inner direction and to lead in all areas of relationship and avoid directing the child’s play. This therapist should appreciate the gradual nature of the therapeutic process in a slow manner, and finally he should establish only the therapeutic limits that help the child accept personal and appropriate responsibility. The primary objective of the process is not only to solve the problem but to help in the growth of the child.
The therapist primarily meets with the child alone and arranges time to meet with parents separately or with the child depending with the situation. The structure of the sessions should be consistently maintained to provide a feeling of stability and safety for the child. In the session, the therapist uses specific techniques to assess how a child experiences his/her world and how he/she communicates and reacts to events and people in his/her own world. The child is led to become aware of what he/she is feeling and opportunities are given to express these feelings.
Awareness is thus a very important aspect in play therapy because without it, change is not possible (Chethik, Morton. 2000). Throughout the therapy, the child is empowered and supported to learn more about who he/she thinks she/he is, to talk about things that are frightening or painful, to be self supportive as well as to experiment new behavior (Bratton. Et al. 2005). Since the child’s world is a world of action and activity, the therapy provides the therapist with an opportunity to enter the child’s world.
The child lives out the past experience and related moments at the moment of play. Without the presence of play materials, the therapist could only talk with the child about aggressive behavior exhibited in the recent past. In play therapy however, whatever reason for referral, the therapist has the opportunity to experience and actively deal with that problem immediately. By so doing, the child plays out feelings by banging them to the surface, getting them out in the open, facing them and either abandoning them or learning to control them.
Toys and materials Since toys and materials are part of this communicative process for children, careful attention must be given to their appropriate selection. The rule here is selection rather than accumulation. Please note that random assortment of acquired toys and materials often appear like junk rooms and they therefore doom the therapy process to failure. They should then be carefully selected for the contribution they make to accomplish the play objective and the extent to which they are consistent with the play therapy rationale.
Some general guidelines to consider are that the tools should be durable and should communicate a message of “be yourself in playing” rather than “be careful. ” They should provide children with a variety in choice of medium of expression. (Eliana, G. 1994). However, they need not be elaborate and above all they should not be complex. Remember that the first toys to be used were sticks. The tools should be age appropriately manageable so that the child will not be frustrated in his efforts to express himself/herself. No toy should require the child to seek the therapist’s help to manipulate.
Landreth (1991) asserts that the toys and materials should facilitate establishment of a positive relationship with the child, testing of limits, exploration of real-life experiences, development of positive image, self-undertaking, expression of a wide range of feelings and opportunity to redirect behaviors unacceptable to others. These toys can be grouped into three basic classes viz; real-life toys such as a doll, a small cardboard box with rooms indicated by tape strips or felt pen markers, doll house furniture, pacifier and a small car.
Secondly, there are those acting out or aggressive release toys such as handcuffs, toy guns, dart gun and toy soldiers, aggressive puppets, rubber knife and punching bags. Finally, there are toys for creative expression and emotional release such as crayons, newsprints, blue scissors, hand puppets, plain mask, and also sand trays. Setting limits in Play Therapy This is a very crucial part of this process. The structure of the therapeutic limits is what helps to make the experience a real life relationship (Eliana, G. 994).
Limits in play therapy have advantages both practically and therapeutically since they preserve the therapeutic relationship; facilitate the child’s opportunities to learn self responsibility and self control. Provide the child with emotional security and physical safety and thus enabling the child to explore and express his/her inner emotional dimensions that perhaps have remained hidden in his/her other relationships (Axline, 1989).
Boundaries are necessary here to provide predictability and thus the children are not allowed to do anything they want to do. The play therapy relationship has minimum limits (Eliana, G. 1994). Exploration is encouraged, messiness accepted and persistence is the guiding principle. Play therapy is a learning experience and thus limits are not set until they are needed. The limits are worded in such a way that the child is allowed to bring himself under control. Research and Results
Play therapy is an approach based on well thought out, philosophically conceived, developmentally based and research supported approach to assisting children cope with and overcome the problems they experience in life (Bratton. Et al. 2005). It has therefore been demonstrated to be effective in a variety of children’s problems including, but not limited to, abuse and neglect, aggression and acting out, autism, fear and anxiety, grief, hospitalization, learning disabilities, chronic illnesses, withdrawn children and burn victims.
In the case studies reported by Landreth, the views that play therapy requires a long-term commitment is totally unfounded. Conclusion Play therapy can thus help a child to become aware of his feelings and how those feelings manifest into his/ her behavior (Bratton. Et al. 2005). He/she learns to become better at regulating emotions and expressing them in constructive ways. This combination of skills may help a child to become more assertive, self confident and to have self respect and respect for others. He/she then get this assurance that he/she will be understood and accepted.