Transcript: Why Play?

Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks. Welcome back to the play therapy podcast. In this episode, we are going to be talking through why play is so important. I’m going to give a disclaimer and a caveat because I know my veteran play therapists. I know people that have been in the field forever and I know people that know play therapy very well are going to feel that this is something that you all are very much aware of. But, I have to be sensitive to the fact that there are people that are probably listening that have no graduate school training, no conference training, no knowledge or background in play therapy at all. And this is the very first introduction they’ve ever had to play therapy. So, I feel I need to do everyone justice. Honestly, I believe that even those of us that have been doing this forever, even for those of us that understand the inherent power of play, it is always good to have reminders and to be brought back to the foundational components of why we do what we do. So, I feel that for everyone, there will be something of value in this episode. And so, when we’re thinking about play therapy as a whole and then later down the road, the child-centered non-directive play therapy approach, we have to take it all the way back to ground zero and look at why play is something that we use therapeutically. And in the next episode, we’re going to talk about “why play therapy?”. So, we will get there. But, we have to look at the foundational piece of play and what it means for children and what it does for children. That’s the foundation upon which we build everything that comes in the future, as far as the theory, the model, the practice, and all of the things that we will talk through together in this podcast.

So, when we’re looking at play, we have to understand what is taking place when children play, why children play, and the benefits of play. There’s so much rich depth there that I want to spend a little bit of time on. And so, in today’s episode, I’m actually getting some of this information from Rise VanFleet’s book. I love it. It’s so practical, so helpful. The book is actually called Child Centered Play Therapy and it’s [written by] VanFleet and a couple of other authors with her. It is a really powerful primer in the [play therapy] model. So, some of what I’m talking about comes from that book. And then also, I’m using Cochran’s book, Child Centered Play Therapy. So, they actually have the exact same title but they are written by different sets of authors. So, Cochran and Nordling wrote the child-centered play therapy book that I mentioned second. And then, VanFleet, Andrea Sywulak, and Cynthia Sniscak [for the first book mentioned]. Rise VanFleet is the first author.

So,I want you to go with me on this journey. I think this is going to be really helpful because again, why kids play and what it does for them is at the heart of why we are play therapists. So, when we think about children playing, I think, unfortunately, it’s often trivialized. Parents and pediatricians and teachers and lots of adults in children’s lives trivialize the importance and power of play. It is spoken of as “Oh yeah, kids love to play”. It’s kind of said in such a way that it really doesn’t matter. And the interesting thing is that research and data totally contradict that approach. If we’re looking at what happens when children are playing, we can see it’s so important for them in so many ways. So, from the VanFleet book, she says that when you look at it from a child development perspective, naturally occurring play produces a lot of developmental gains. In other words, children develop physically from their play. They develop motor skills from their play. They develop socially and emotionally from their play. And they even benefit intellectually from their play. Developmentally speaking, play is not something that children just do, it is a necessity for their development and their healthy growth.

We have to keep in mind that play is something that kids are drawn to. Play is something that kids love to do, but further, they need to do it. That is a very important distinction. When we understand developmentally what’s going on, we can understand that from a neurobiological perspective and a physiological perspective, there are very important processes that are taking place. What’s really fascinating is that the American Academy of Pediatrics actually talks about this. So often, we have this perception that the medical world and the therapeutic world aren’t always in sync. And I feel that as play therapists, we’re constantly fighting against the diagnoses and the medication. For example, a child goes [to a doctor], a parent complains about something, and they’re given a diagnosis and put on a pill. And so, I feel that the “quick fix” mentality often does not align with the play therapy model which is that children will naturally heal and they will naturally become the best version of themselves that they can if given the time, the tools and the opportunity. But, I’m jumping ahead a little bit. We’ll talk a lot about that in future episodes. But the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is very clearly from a medical model, actually states, I’m going to quote, “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development”. We have the AAP acknowledging how important play is developmentally, physically, cognitively, and emotionally. So, they’re addressing everything that we know as play therapists. I feel like there is some common ground to be found there and that’s very exciting to me.

So, when we look at children’s play, we’ve acknowledged, we have physical development, motor development, social development, emotional development, and intellectual development. We have all of these things taking place. And the social development piece of this is extremely powerful because when children play, they learn how to interact with others, they learn how to engage in conflict, they learn how to problem solve, and they learn how to change things about themselves that are not conducive to social interaction. So, children who are very shy have to become a little bit more engaged. Children who are very bossy have to become a little bit less overbearing. Children who don’t speak have to learn how to communicate. Play is a natural sloughing off of [the] rough edges in children’s personalities. And so, social development is also a huge piece of the play process.

The beauty of play in childhood is that it is extremely simple. First of all, there is beauty in the simplicity of a child’s play. But, it also allows them to practice complex pieces of their development. So, it’s very simple to do, yet the complexity is really kind of astounding. When you think about it, children don’t necessarily need anything to play with in order to play. And it allows them to negotiate and develop and practice all kinds of things that they need for development. I think that that’s a really special thing to keep in mind: it doesn’t take much for a child to play, but what they’re doing is actually of great importance and significance. So, when we’re thinking in terms of how important it is for a child to play, we also have to keep in mind that there are big trends in children that are preventing them from playing. What I mean is there’s been a lot of change that’s taken place in children’s ability to play and their play experiences. And unfortunately, what’s happening is that play is becoming increasingly more structured and it’s becoming increasingly more adult-directed. In other words, there is no self-initiated free play anymore. That has been reduced almost across the board. And we have parents and teachers and adults now making sure that they are governing playtime. And recess in schools is disappearing at a rapid rate. Some have gotten rid of it altogether. Children are extremely over scheduled right now. There are always activities. Every night, every weekend, extracurricular sports, church. There are so many things that are filling a child’s life. The historical context of play, or what I think a lot of us would talk about, is rough play, roughhousing, wrestling, rough and tumble, or whatever you wanna call it. We’ve all but eliminated the opportunity for children to have rough and tumble play. And so, basically playgrounds have become paved and they are now designed with adult appropriate equipment. The point is, there’s no place and there’s no opportunity for kids to just play organically, naturally, and play rough.

Kids need rough and tumble play. And unfortunately we, as a society, have started looking at that as “violent”. All of us, [born in the] early 80s and and earlier had rough and tumble play and that was a part of our childhood. It was normal developmentally, we were given the freedom to do it, and it was never considered a problem, it was never considered an issue. And so, as we continue to look at that as increasingly “violent”, we are taking away the natural part of childhood for children. What that looks like for them is they go to playgrounds and they have a concrete slab and they have swings and most playgrounds don’t even have monkey bars anymore. So, you have the little seesaws and a little rope climbing. But, there’s no place where there’s grass and mulch and open areas to roll and wrestle and throw the football and tackle and do all the things that kids want to do. So, that’s a very important piece of the puzzle. We are taking away the opportunity to give them what they actually need.

While we’re talking about this, what they actually need is naturally-occurring, child-initiated play. This is part of the way children are wired. In other words, we have this understanding that kids need this, but it’s being taken away from them at alarming rates. Those desires, those deep instincts for self-initiated, self-led, self-directed play that just naturally takes place actually serve critical developmental functions in the child. I don’t think we even fully understand the depth of what it does for a child. So, we can’t rush that, we can’t ignore that, and we can’t discard that. We have to be very sensitive to how important play really is for kids and give them the opportunity to do it.

Play therapy as a whole is based on the fact that children will naturally use play to express themselves. We don’t have to ask them to, we don’t have to expect them to, they will just do it. They will naturally express themselves through their play because that is the way they would naturally communicate anyway. Essentially, play gives them the space to play out feelings, thoughts, problems, or whatever you can imagine that they’re dealing with. They will play it out just as an adult would talk things out. Play is their natural way of communicating, it’s their natural way of understanding, it’s their natural way of expressing. It essentially becomes the way that they gravitate toward helping people understand their needs, their thoughts, their desires, and their wishes. It’s a really powerful thing to allow a child to play and it is even more powerful to honor the process of them playing. If we as adults can recognize the significance of what they’re gaining from play, it helps us be better parents, it helps us be better teachers, better therapists, or whatever role we have in the lives of children. It helps us to be better to them by giving them the opportunity to play and recognizing what they gain while they are playing.

That’s what this entire podcast is about. Equipping us to be knowledgeable and effective and inspiring you to be the best play therapist that you can be. Without the awareness of the power of play, the rest of this loses its significance. Because yes, we can be trained in play therapy skills, and we can even be trained in child-centered play therapy skills. But if we don’t value, at our deepest level, how powerful playing is for children, then we are undermining the effectiveness and the significance of what’s taking place in our playrooms. We can have skills, we can have tools, we can have practices, we can have everything that we need to implement a play therapy session with children. We can have state of the art playrooms and we can have all the books and all of the training. But if we don’t keep in mind that kids are going to play and how important that play is and why it’s important and what it does for kids, then there’s something that’s greatly missed in the process.

One of the things I love about child-centered literature is that it spends so much time saying the great news is play is healing no matter what. Play is helpful, no matter what. Play is going to help a child deal with whatever they’re dealing with, no matter what. There’s such a learning component to the act of playing. And so, the pressure’s off a little bit therapeutically. When you introduce a child to a playroom, it kind of takes care of itself to a degree. Do we need to be competent? Yes. Do we need to use skills effectively? Yes. And that’s why this play therapy podcast exists. But the process of play is powerful just because of what it does for a child developmentally, emotionally, socially, intellectually. All of those things we discussed still take place because they’re wired to do that. It’s so encouraging to me when I go back and I dive into what the research says about play, it just reinforces and reminds me of what an amazing job I have and what an amazing field I’m in. We’ve been given the opportunity to take something that kids naturally do, is naturally beneficial for them, and is naturally healing for them and then we add some bonus to it in the playroom and they are able to do the work that they need to do. It’s just so fulfilling and rewarding for me. I hope you feel the same.

You may be someone that’s been around this field forever. I hope this renews your love and passion and wonder and awe surrounding play and play therapy. And if you are brand new and this is all new to you, I hope that this inspires you. I hope that you feel like your mind’s been opened up to this thing that you’ve always needed, but you didn’t know you needed. And then you say “I’m all in this is what I want for the rest of my career”. Play truly is an amazing part of our world and it’s an amazing part of children’s lives and I’m just very honored and grateful that this is what I get to do all day every day.

I have quite a few kids, actually, our center serves upwards of 125 children a week and there are five child-centered play therapists there. We have a lot of stories that we exchange and we have our staff meeting each week where we talk about different kids and different families. And we all have experienced this and I’ve been doing this a long time. So, I’ve heard it so many times a child comes into the playroom and is sitting there and kind of out of the blue, they say, “so what’s your job or so what, what is this like, is this your place?” They’re so confused as to how an adult just plays with them each day and I’ve had some say, “oh my gosh, this is the best job ever. You just get to play every day” So, I’ve had that camp. And then I’ve had the polar opposite where a kid kind of just stares at the floor after I say, “Yeah, it’s my job to play with kids, I have the best job in the world.” And then sometimes kids just kind of stare at the floor and then they look up and they’re like, “I kind of feel bad for you, you just have to sit and watch kids play all day.” I don’t really get to play as often so they feel like that’s a terrible tragedy that has befallen me. And you know, even that. Kids are naturally curious, they are naturally inquisitive, they’re naturally observant. So, where in their life have they ever known of someone that just plays with a kid for a living? And sometimes they’ll say, “so you actually get paid to play with me?” And so, it’s just this really amazing thing that takes place as children are in the playroom where they’re trying to make sense of their world and that’s exactly what it is. Play gives kids the opportunity to make sense of their world. That’s why it’s so powerful. That’s why it’s so effective and that’s why an entire theoretical model has been birthed around this concept of children naturally using play to do what they need to do.

I wanted to spend a little bit of time with you in this episode going through why play is so important. In the next episode we will actually talk through why play therapy is so important. I’m looking forward to having that conversation with you. Thank you for being a part of the play therapy podcast and we’ll talk again soon. Bye.