Play is as natural and necessary for a child’s journey through the world as swimming is for a fish. And this is what makes it an ideal therapeutic medium for children.
“Birds fly, fish swim and children play”. – Garry Landreth
Until recently, play therapy was almost unheard of in New Zealand. But the need for a more developmentally-appropriate approach to working with children and families has seen a trickle of professionals bring this much-needed service to our tamariki.
It’s an evidence-based intervention that has been well established in countries such as the USA and the UK for decades.
Play therapy is for children aged 3-12 years of age who are experiencing emotional, social and behavioural difficulties. It helps with both common childhood struggles and more serious concerns.
Some examples of challenges play therapy can help children through are –
- difficulty managing emotions
- low self-esteem
- difficulty with social interactions
- dealing with difficult experiences (e.g. the death of a loved one, being in a car accident, being a victim of abuse or neglect)
- living with a developmental difference or medical condition
Why is play optimal?
So, why, exactly, is play optimal for working with children?
Given their stage of development, children can express themselves more through play than they’re able to with words. Using toys gives them a tangible way to work through difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences.
There’s also a familiarity and safety in play, making it a comfortable way for children to work through their struggles. All this makes play an ideal language for therapy.
Play therapist, Marie Baker of Chrysalis Play Therapy in Wellington, showed me her playroom. The tools of her trade are invitingly displayed on white shelving – wooden blocks, toy vehicles, art supplies…and a giant soft dinosaur (bigger than most of her clients) in the corner of the room, overseeing it all.
In the playroom
I ask Marie about what goes on in the playroom.
She explains that while play is the medium for therapy, the most important aspect of therapy is the relationship between the child and the therapist.
Her interactions with them show the child that she values them as a unique individual; that they’re safe, accepted and unconditionally supported in the playroom; and that they’re free to express themselves and try out ways of being that might be judged negatively outside of the playroom.
Essentially, the quality of the therapeutic relationship empowers the child to play exactly as they choose, allowing them to express and process the thoughts, feelings and experiences they need to. Sessions are child-led and no two sessions are the same.
As we speak, Marie’s passion for children’s wellbeing and the role play therapy plays is evident.
“I became a play therapist because, during my years teaching, I taught many children who had emotional and psychological needs that weren’t being met by the system and that I didn’t have the skills to meet, despite my best efforts”.
Marie left her 20-year teaching career and embarked on a Master of Child Play Therapy through Deakin University, to help the kinds of children she had worried about as a teacher.
Now registered with the Australasia Pacific Play Therapy Association, she’d love to see the profession grow in New Zealand so that children can get the help they need.
Play therapy’s ability to facilitate emotional and social development and to improve mental health and wellbeing is proven and she knows it can make a real difference in the lives of children and their families.
Play teaches. Play nurtures. Play heals.
As I gather my things to leave the playroom, I ask Marie what the most popular toy is.
It’s the dino, grinning in the corner. It’s been punched, cuddled, wrestled with, squeezed into the play tent, dressed up and more.
A lot of work goes on in the playroom for both the child and the therapist but I reckon dino has the hardest job here.”
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Find out more about what play therapy is or how it could help a child you know here.