Children under the age of 10 are not yet cognitively developed enough to use words alone to fully process and express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Instead, they use play.
Imagine that you speak decent conversational Russian. This works pretty well for getting your basic needs met and holding basic conversations while in Russia, and the more Russian you speak, the better you get at both understanding and communicating it. But now imagine trying to explain something complex and emotionally charged, like a painful divorce, or the death of a parent, only using Russian. It would be impossible to express the depth of your feelings and nuances of your experience without supplementing your Russian with your native tongue. The extent of your Russian would determine how much you would need to supplement with your native language. And even then, your message would not be conveyed or received as throughly as if you were using your native language with someone else who speaks it.
Though children speak our adult language- sometimes well beyond their years- their brains are still learning it and developing to accommodate it, and play remains their fluent native language.
Play therapy allows the child to use as much of their native language as necessary to communicate and process their experiences with an empathetic therapist who has learned to speak their language.
When a child plays, the total child is present, and they use toys to process what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what they hope to happen in the future.
Toys are like a child’s words. Play therapists provide a specific selection of toys to facilitate therapeutic play. Therapeutic uses of play include:
- Catharsis: Play allows children to work through issues of greatest importance to them.
- Fun: Fun lowers a child’s resistance to the therapeutic relationship and offers an experience that is often missing in their world. (note that play is not always fun)
- Symbolic Expression of Thoughts and Feelings: Play provides a concrete expression of a child’s inner world.
- Social Development: Play promotes communication between the child and therapist, and fosters a nurturing relationship with the therapist that can generalize to outside social interests.
- Mastery: Play develops the child’s sense of confidence and competence over their environment. During pretend play, the child has the power to be and do anything they may not in real life.
- Release of Energy: Children often need a safe place to let loose after maintaining control in structured environments, like school, all day.
Over time, what children experience and learn in the playroom and within the therapeutic relationship generalizes to their lives outside of the playroom, facilitating lasting change.