“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
Plato, the philosopher, said this around 400 B.C. The concept of playing to learn has been around for centuries. However, only in the past couple of decades has play become a powerful and regular form of child therapy. It can be difficult for young children to articulate their thoughts and feelings. This is partly because they are still building their vocabulary and may be uncertain of emotions being experienced for the first time. During play, though, children’s defenses decrease and they may express sentiments through their body language.
Play therapy is a great way for counselors to enhance creativity and develop techniques that are unique to their clients. I want to share a couple of games that I have found to work well in terms of being fun and therapeutic at the same time. Parents, these may even be activities to try with your little ones at home! (Note: I came up with the game names myself, but feel free to call them whatever you like).
1. Draw Your Scares Away
This is a silly way to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with common fears. The goal is to show children that they can have complete control over the things that worry or scare them. First, give the child a piece of paper and ask them to draw something scary (e.g., a monster or a bully). Next, have the child add something funny on top of the drawing. This should be something that makes the image appear less threatening and more humorous – like a mustache or a crazy hat. The goal is that the changed image on paper will slowly lead to a changed mindset for the child.
2. Bye, Bye, Balloon
Children (and let’s face it, adults too) love balloons. This game works well for clients who have a habit of internalizing intense feelings. Start by blowing air into a balloon until it is close to bursting (be sure to stop before it pops). Explain that blowing air into the balloon is equivalent to holding in worries or bad thoughts. In other words, the more you keep pushing in, the more likely it is that the balloon (and you) will explode. Then, let the balloon go and watch it fly freely around the room. Relate the air escaping from the balloon to the feeling of “letting go.”
3. Cards and Chatting
This is a pretty simple play therapy technique that I have found to be quite useful with older children (10 and up) who don’t particularly want to be in therapy (i.e., the resistant clients). It involves playing a fun card game in which the child and counselor share something at each turn. It’s important for the therapist to share lightly as to not self-disclose too much unnecessary information. This exercise is good for building trust between the counselor and client.
Although most counselors can easily implement such techniques, I recommend getting proper training before applying the principles of play therapy. Most programs offer courses, certificates, and even entire degrees in this specialization. There are also plenty of seminars and conferences available for those who want to keep up-to-date in the field. Please refer to the Association of Play Therapy’s website for more information: http://www.a4pt.org/ps.index.cfm.
Sadaf Siddiqi is a certified counselor with an interest in mental health research and its application to children and families. Please share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.