How Play Therapy Can Help Children

Many people outside of the therapy field misunderstand play therapy’s significance even though it is the most recommended therapy for children 12 and under. Play therapy, or special playtime, can be seen as unimportant, trivial, or even strange but don’t forget that play was our first language. Play therapists have been trained to support therapeutic play, see unhealthy behaviors that may indicate disorders, and are experienced with the research behind different types of play. But the power of play itself can be harnessed by anyone.

mother playing card with son on bed

Many of the aspects that make play therapy successful are things that parents can do at home, such as giving your undivided attention to your child in 1:1 time with an emphasis on allowing them the emotional freedom to play out themes or feelings that they choose.  It is important to keep this time protected and consistent. You can pick up a lot about how your child is feeling and what they’re thinking by listening to where they decide to take the play.

If you’re looking for scientific proof, take a look at The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children, a study and article done by The American Academy of Pediatrics that discusses many aspects of the benefits of play. It explains how developmentally appropriate play with a caregiver promotes social-emotional development, language, and self-regulation skills. Play also supports interactions that help kids feel safe and stable in their environment. It has been proven to actually change brain structure and executive function in positive ways. Play can even help children cope with “toxic stress,” improve reading, show more positive life course trajectories, and it supports the integration of information. 

How can you start harnessing the power of play with your child?

Here are a few important things to keep in mind…

Special Playtime Must Be ConsistentIt should be at the same time and on the same day. For example, every Wednesday after school.This could be 5 min to an hour, with a general recommended time being 10-30 minutes.
mother on a blanket playing with her child with dog
It Should Be One on One TimeThis should be time with just you and your child. By scheduling time to be only with them, you are communicating to your child that they are important. All other siblings, phone calls, and any other distractions, like the dishes, should be put away. You should be 100% focused on your child.
Be An Active ListenerThis time is meant to help you understand how your child is feeling and what they need. Let them talk about their feelings and express those feelings without putting words in their mouth. Be open to how they feel, even if the theme is “you are always making me eat vegetables.”
Reflect Their FeelingsIt can be helpful to let your child know you see them. “I see you are smashing the play-doh together”.If they say “I’m mad at you for being late to pick me up” a reflective statement could be “I see, you are feeling angry at me for yesterday.”

This time is not about explaining why you were late to school, it’s about validating that your child may have felt let down. Notice what they are trying to communicate in the play and help support them in these feelings and process.

dad playing soccer with daughter

Special playtime can be shorter, longer, or more frequent depending on you and your child’s needs. The important thing is that it is 1:1 time, time that a child can expect and look forward to. The play itself is about letting your child express feelings and thoughts, and seeing them and supporting them in that process.

Special playtime can be used with older teens too in a more age-appropriate activity such as tossing the baseball in the backyard together. Play is powerful and effective and can be an important addition to your set of parenting tools!

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