Transcript: Why Play Therapy?
Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks. Welcome back to the Play Therapy Podcast. So, in the last episode we talked about how important play is for kids. And so, in this episode, I want to break into “why play therapy” because once we understand the power of play, what children get out of their play, and the benefits, then we can talk about “why play therapy”. In our first episode, I shared a little bit of my story, wanting to work with adults, then discovering play therapy, a paradigm shift. My world was forever changed and you know, it’s a really amazing thing when you discover something that you didn’t know you needed in your life. But once you find it, you realize that you’ve always needed it, and you just didn’t know it. We used this phrase at our center a lot: you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s true of kids, that’s true of parents, that’s true of therapists, that’s true of us as humans, right? We’re not aware of what we’re not aware of until we’re made aware of it. And then all of a sudden we can decide what to do with that knowledge and what to do with that information. That truly is my hope for this podcast and this play therapy podcast audience. That we continue to be made aware of things that we might not have known and that it makes us better, it changes us for the better, and we take that knowledge and we’re able to do something meaningful and beneficial with it.
So, when we’re thinking about “why play therapy” again, my disclaimer is that if you’ve been a play therapist forever, if you’ve been in this field forever, please don’t turn it off. I genuinely think that you will benefit from what we discuss together. But, I have to keep in mind there are people that this is the first time they’ve ever been introduced to play therapy and what we do in our world. So, I want to make sure that we are sensitive to that and that we get everyone up to speed and on the same page so that we can all move forward together. So, when we’re thinking through the play therapy approach, in the next episode we’re going to dive into the child-centered model specifically, but play therapy as a whole, if we understand… Actually, I’m gonna pause and I’m going to give you a word picture because I think that’s helpful. I’m a really visual person. So, for me, I feel like we need a visual representation of this. So, in my mind this [podcast] has a flow chart. So, think about this: you write something and then you draw a “down” arrow and then you write something and you draw a “down” arrow. That’s kind of how I envision this podcast going. Also, in these early episodes, it’s how it flows. If we understand the power of play, why children do it, what they get out of it, how healing and helpful it is, that flows into “why play therapy”. You take what a child is naturally going to do anyway and it becomes a therapeutic approach. Once we establish “why play therapy” then we move into the child-centered model as I personally believe it is the most effective and the best approach to play therapy. We’ll talk a lot about why in many, many future episodes. So, this is a flow chart where one begets the next which begets the next. So, play we have to understand why, then play therapy we have to understand why, then the child-centered model.
When we’re diving into play therapy today, keep in mind some of what I’m sharing with you comes from Cochran’s child-centered book and the VanFleet child-centered book. I would actually encourage you to purchase both of those books. I’m not an affiliate. I get no commission or any kind of kick back on saying that. I was trained [in the] Landreth model and so much of my entire first decade of play therapy and the work in the field came exclusively from Landreth’s approach with Bratton’s CPRT manual tied in as well. I always believe that the more perspectives you have on the same approach, the more well rounded we are. I have truly loved reading VanFleet’s book. I’ve loved reading Cochran’s book because it’s saying the same things, but in a slightly different way with a slightly different context. it just expands your knowledge of the field and our craft. So, I would actually encourage you to buy both of those. Of course I would encourage you to have Landreth’s books. We’ll talk about those when we get into the child-centered model. Some of what I’m sharing today comes out of these two books.
So, you have to keep in mind when thinking in terms of the play therapy approach that there is a therapeutic component being weaved into what a child is naturally going to do anyway. In the last episode we talked about all the benefits of play. So now, we think of it in a therapeutic context. Play is a natural drive, a natural motivation that kids have just because of the way that they are made. So, children do it almost exclusively. And then as we get into adulthood we do it less and less, which I think is so sad. I think we need to play more as humans, no matter how old we are.
One of my play therapists at the center actually gave me a magnet for my birthday a couple of years ago that said, “do more of what makes you forget to look at your phone”. And that’s a whole other podcast because I’ve written a book against devices and how that has taken over our lives. I am just very opposed to technology and screens and devices and all of that. So, it was the perfect magnet for me. But, I thought about that and I thought that what makes us forget to look at our phones as a society is fun, playful things. It’s going mountain biking, it’s going hiking, it’s going swimming, it’s going to the beach, it’s playing a backyard football game. It’s playful activities that are distracting enough for us not to look at our phones. And I think it’s powerful to recognize that play is what we naturally do to decompress, to relax, to have fun. Children do it frequently and pervasively, but we as adults don’t do it as much. But it is that strong drive and motivation; that is the way that children are wired. So, we have to keep in mind that developmentally, of course there’s all these things happening. And when child development theorists keep play in mind, they watch children play when they observe children at play, when they see the benefit of play, it allows them to create a therapeutic approach based on what they’re going to naturally do anyway. Essentially what I’m trying to say is it is an age-appropriate developmentally appropriate model for use with children. As Gary Landreth said many years ago “birds fly, fish swim, children play”. And so, when we think that this is just who children are and what they do, how do we take what they’re naturally going to do anyway, and what they’re naturally going to get benefit from and put it in a therapeutic context? That’s what the theorists were able to do, which is amazing.
When we’re thinking about play in a therapeutic context, play allows children to express themselves. It allows them to express their needs, their feelings, their thoughts, their wishes, their desires, their struggles, and their challenges. You name it, and play affords them the opportunity to make sense of it. And it is essentially the way that they communicate. If you know Landreth’s model, if you’ve read his books, if you’ve attended any of his trainings, whatever your background, if it’s with Landreth, you will have heard the phrase “children use play as their language and toys become their words”. With that thought in mind, they are communicating through their play. They’re able to, in a therapeutic context, do that [communicate] with the therapist in the playroom. They use play, their natural medium. They use toys as their words. They communicate to the therapist everything that the therapist needs to know. That is such an incredible process to watch and to be a part of. Sometimes, I still have this moment of awe and wonder about watching it unfold in front of me in the playroom.
It’s so powerful because I often have parents who want to give me an entire history, an entire background. They want to bring binders in for me, they want to bring medical records in, they want to have me talk to the school and talk to this person and that person. Now, we do offer parent meetings before we begin with the child. We give them an hour of our time and we sit down (we call them consultations). So, I am aware of how important it is for a parent to be able to share with us what they need to share with us. But the reality of the situation is, and I don’t make this explicitly known to parents though sometimes I hint at it, there’s this really interesting phenomenon taking place as they’re telling me all of this. I’m sitting there internally saying, “all I need to know is your child’s name and I can do my job”. But, they feel compelled to share so much. Sometimes, it absolutely is helpful and beneficial because in the playroom I’m able to connect dots and I’m able to see that that must have influenced that or whatever. I’m not saying that the context and the history and the background is not helpful. Often, it is. But at its core, play therapy only requires the child’s name. I have everything I need to know to do an entire play session with a child just knowing their name because they will communicate with me what they need to communicate. They will use play. They will express themselves. They will let me into their world and they will show me what they’re working on and what they need to achieve.
It’s so incredible to think that all you need to do is give the child the playroom and the person and they’ll let you into their lives. What a humbling and incredible moment to have that connection forged through play.
As children are playing in a playroom, they are building bonds. There’s a social component to play. We talked about that last episode. Of course, children seek to play with other children, right? Go to a playground and strangers converge and they end up playing together within a few minutes. Children seek play with other children. But they also seek play with anyone that they can play with. So, that’s where the therapist-child interaction takes place. They’ll do it with adults as well. How many times do your kids, children that you hang out with, say: “Watch me. Come do this with me. Throw this with me. Catch this with me.” They want to engage socially via play. They use social themes in that play. They learn behaviors through that play. And when adults play with children there’s an attachment that’s formed. Children seek engagement socially through all age ranges while they’re playing. That’s why play therapy is effective, because they form an attachment with the therapist. They form bonds with the therapist and a relationship is forged.
I think it’s really important to note that play is extremely freeing. In the playroom as they’re playing, they are able to feel deep emotion. They’re able to relieve stress, they’re able to reduce their inhibitions. They’re able to show joy and excitement and curiosity. There’s just big emotion that comes from play and the therapeutic piece of that is learning to handle those big emotions, identify those emotions, and communicate those emotions. We’ll talk about all of those skills in future episodes. But it really does make a big difference for kids. The freeing effect that it [play] has on them.
As children are playing, they are working on their struggles, they are working through their problems, they are solving problems, and they are learning how to negotiate situations that are difficult. As they are playing, it’s one of the only times where they get practice for the real world. If you think in terms of a playroom, or when a child is at play, they are practicing and building skills to implement in the real world in everyday situations. It makes sense that that is used therapeutically because they’re able to try a solution and see if it works in their play. And if it doesn’t work, there are really no negative outcomes for that, they just try something else. It actually provides them with the safety to work through those inner struggles, those outer struggles, and then resolve whatever they’re dealing with. It is essentially a practice ground. That’s what I tell parents all the time. Your child comes in here, they realize what they need to work on. They start to work on it and they practice over and over and over and over again until they feel comfortable with it, until they feel they’re able to master it, and until they feel capable of implementing it outside of the playroom. That’s why, more often than not, I see change in the playroom first before parents or teachers or whoever else is in the child’s life sees the change because they have to practice it and get accustomed to it in the playroom before it translates outside the playroom. There are a lot of problems that are addressed in their play. That’s why, therapeutically, it’s so powerful to have someone in there with them to help them on that journey.
When children are at play, they are able to have power and they’re able to have control over things that they normally do not have control and power over. In most situations, children are told where, when, how, why, and what. There’s very little power, very little control that children are given. But in the playroom it’s very different. In their play, it’s very different. When children are able to take charge and be in control and have power. When they’re able to orchestrate something and they’re able to plan something and they’re able to execute something, it is essentially giving them power and control that they don’t have anywhere else. But, this comes with its own set of learning and struggles and challenges. As they have to modify their behavior in the real world, they learn to modify their behavior in their play. And so, there’s less risk of hazardous outcomes in the playroom than there are in schools, in homes, with parents, with teachers, and with all these other people in their lives. As they are working through some of those things with power and control in mind, play therapy provides the place where they are able to navigate. What does it feel like to have all control? What does it feel like to have no control? What does it feel like to be all-powerful? What does it feel like to have no power whatsoever? They swing back and forth. We talk about it as a pendulum at the center. They go from one side of the pendulum to the other in the playroom. They want to know what it’s like to have both, to see what it feels like to be in both situations. Eventually, they learn to regulate within those two ends of the spectrum. It’s a really amazing thing that play therapy gives them that safe environment in which to do that. One of the very few places actually in a child’s life, they’re able to do that. Finally, there are so many types of play and they occur in so many different contexts. It is really fascinating to think about how children will naturally play. They’ll naturally play with whoever they have available to play with. But play usually occurs when children feel physically and emotionally safe. I don’t want to dive really deeply into another theorist because this is the play therapy podcast specifically about child-centered play therapy. But I think other theoretical models have helpful nuggets and they are influential to a degree in our understanding of humanity. If you know anything about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if you don’t just look that up. You’ll see a little pyramid and you’ll see a visual representation of his hierarchy of needs. I’m bringing that up because there’s a hierarchy of needs for all of us. And that is true of children at play. And so when we think about it, they [children] need to feel physically and emotionally safe. Just like Maslow’s hierarchy, if you don’t know where you’re going to have food, water or shelter, you’re not going to worry about friendships. So in similar fashion, children will not play unless they feel physically and emotionally safe or at least they will not play to the degree that they would otherwise. Play therapy creates that physically and emotionally safe environment where children are able to play through the things that they need to play through. That is such an incredible thing to be a part of. It really is amazing to watch that unfold.
Before we wrap up for today, I do want to share a couple of other thoughts. It’s helpful to think through why play used in a therapeutic context is so meaningful. That’s what we’ve already talked about. But I think it’s important to look at some other anecdotal pieces so that we understand how play and therapy actually fuse together and maybe have some phrases that will help influence and inform our awareness of that.
It’s really important to keep in mind that systematic play interactions in a therapeutic relationship help children with healthy development and problem resolution. When we think about play therapy as a whole, there are all of these definitions, there are all of these conceptualizations of what play therapy is, how it works, and how we define it. How do we explain it? How do we conceptualize it? It’s a good thing to have those kinds of phrases settled down, but no matter what definition you look at, no matter what context it’s written, it all points back to systematic play interactions within a therapeutic relationship that help children have healthier development and problem resolution. That’s a really succinct way to make sense of what play therapy is. This is kind of the anecdotal stuff I mentioned a minute ago, I want to dive a little bit into some of the misconceptions. I think it’s really important to look at what play therapy is, but I also want to look at what play therapy isn’t. There are a lot of misconceptions, there are a lot of misperceptions and I think that if we as a play therapy podcast family are going to combat these and we’re going to speak intelligently against these beliefs, we have to understand them.
First and foremost, many people in our field, meaning the therapeutic field, the counseling field, not specifically [the] play [field]. Mental health professionals, social workers, all of those in the field, sometimes and often have a misconception that if a therapist uses toys with clients, it can entice children to talk about what’s bothering them. That is not play therapy. Just because a therapist has a few toys in their room where they most often use talk therapy with adults, just because they agree to work with a child, and just because they have a few toys in their room, that does not qualify as play therapy. The intention is not to entice children to talk about what is bothering them through toys. That actually flies in the face of the play therapy model. We have to combat this belief that all therapists can work with children and that all children can be enticed to talk about what’s bothering them with the use of toys. That is not reality, that is not the grounded play therapy model, and that is not helpful for children. We have to keep in mind that children are not cognitive, they’re not rational, and they’re not verbal. Trying to use toys to get a child to talk is actually completely counterproductive and counterintuitive, developmentally and age appropriately. So, there is misconception number one.
Misconception number two is some therapists think that representational toys will help their client focus on specific issues. What I mean by that is if there’s been allegations of abuse, sometimes therapists think that they have to have anatomically correct baby dolls in the room. If there are familial issues, there’s divorce, relationship separation, alienation, reunification, or any kind of child family dynamic issue: “Oh, we need to have a doll family in there so that they can use the doll family to focus on those family issues.” This again, flies in the face of the play therapy model. The premise is that in all of these scenarios, children are going to talk about what’s bothering them. The reality is play therapy allows them never to utter a word. I’ve worked with clients, the therapists at my center have worked with clients that never spoke a word to us over the course of an entire treatment through play therapy. I went 20 weeks with a boy and he was not selectively mute. We’ve worked with selectively mute children as well. That’s not what I’m referencing in this case. I’m talking about children who were fully capable of speaking but never said a word for 20 weeks of therapy because they didn’t need to. The outcome was the same. They moved through the themes and the phases that they needed to and they met the goals that they needed to and parents and teachers and all of us were so thrilled with the progress that was made and they did not need to speak. There was never an expectation that they would talk because they use toys as their words. So, that’s misconception number two. And just as a further explanation of that, I think it’s important to keep in mind that a play therapist is never expecting… I don’t use absolutes unless I mean them… It’s funny, this is a related aside, you get a bonus story here.
So, two of my best friends from college, we all three were in the psych undergrad program. And our psychology department chair Dr. Walton, drilled into our heads all through our time in undergrad that people use absolutes all the time and they rarely mean them. And so, I consistently use absolutes only when I actually mean it and one of my best friends just texted me within this last month and said “I was going to say that I never call you. And then I remember Dr. Walton saying that we can’t use absolutes unless we mean them and unless they’re true.” And she went on to this whole rant about how we shouldn’t use absolutes and she’s been conditioned to not do that. And I’m like, “oh my gosh, me too.” So, that was a related aside. But I am genuinely saying ‘never’ as an absolute on purpose here.
A play therapist is never expecting a child to be able to cognitively discuss or even understand the meaning or the content of their play. Never. A child-centered play therapist never expects a child to discuss cognitively, rationally, or intellectually the meaning and the content of their play. Subconscious issues float to the surface of play and we don’t need them to talk about it. It naturally evolves in their play and they naturally work through it. We have to keep in mind that children are regaining emotional and social health through their play and it has nothing to do with what they say, what they think, or what they talk about. Those are the misconceptions that are often posed as why play therapy doesn’t work or people are confused by it.
I think I’ll throw in one other that just popped into my head: “oh, all my kid is going to do is play”, as if that’s not enough. “Well, you need to make sure that you talk to them about fill in the blank” or they tell the child “you need to make sure that you talk to Ms. Brenna about fill in the blank.” I’m constantly saying children will naturally address what they need to work on. And the play is hard work. That’s the biggest piece of the puzzle. What the child is doing is very hard work. What the therapist is doing is very hard work. The work that’s taking place in the playroom together is very significant. And so another misconception is, “oh, you’re just going to sit and play. Well, they can play at home. It’s the same thing.” It’s not the same thing for the reasons we’ve already talked about. They have to be physically safe. They have to be emotionally safe. They have to have a therapeutic guide. They have to be in an environment that’s conducive to sorting out their problems where there are no ramifications for messing up, where there are no negative outcomes if something doesn’t go well. That’s a very unique set of criteria and that happens in play therapy. It doesn’t happen in other play environments.
We’re getting into the child-centered next episode. We’ll finally start diving into some of those principles, but I think it’s so important for us to be aware. We have to understand how powerful play is, we have to understand how powerful play therapy is, and then we get into the specifics of the child-centered model. So thank you for being a part of the play therapy podcast. We’ll talk again soon. Bye.