Therapist Spotlight – Making Play Work by Tina Warhurst

How One Registered Play Therapist Uses Play in Her Daily Practice

-Tina Warhurst, LCSW, Registered Play Therapist

Play therapy, in itself, is an evidence-based practice that is effective in treating a wide variety of disorders from attachment to PTSD. However, if you are like me, you don’t just use a specific play therapy theory all day, with all ages and diagnoses.  Many of us are cross-trained in treatment methods such as CBT, DBT, and EMDR. Luckily, play therapy comes with a series of techniques and tools that can be useful in other areas of treatment.  Using play therapy techniques as part of your overall therapy “toolbox” can help enhance the client-therapist relationship and deepen the therapy experience to include the body, heart, and soul of the client. Here’s one way that I use play therapy techniques in practice when using other treatment modalities:

Enhancing the Development of the Therapeutic Relationship: Meeting a new therapist and developing a trusting relationship may be the hardest part of therapy for clients, and where clients will often make the decision not to continue therapy. All that eye contact, the history questions, and therapeutic silence can be overwhelming to a client who already struggles with a lack of felt-safety and trust. I often start off the development of new relationships with an expressive activity such as sandtray or an art project to help the client ease into the relationship. They can “show me” rather than just talk about their experiences. Their attention can be channeled to the project rather than focused on me and their reaction to me.  Much like shifting eye contact to minimize discomfort, we can allow the attention to be in the project, about the project, and their experience of the project. We can then deepen the experience of the project in a safe and supportive manner. The client will often find themselves becoming vulnerable and sharing more than they may have been willing to share if we were just talking about the issues. And, amazingly, they are okay with sharing and being vulnerable because it is their experience of their story, not their experience of me.

In my practice, I will often have clients show me a world, or their world through sandtray and the figures in my therapy room.  I regularly ask clients to create a graphic timeline of their history using colors, beads, figures, clay, pictures or other art medium. And, at times, I have them create a story, using various storytelling techniques, about their world and experiences. Once created, we then deepen the experience using the five senses, including music, or adding written word.

I am amazed at the wealth of information a client can “show me” when just “telling me” is too hard.  Once the relationship develops, and initial anxiety reduces, clients find talking easier and are more willing to allow me to hold their experiences, with a sense of felt-safety, as we travel through the therapy process.

Making play therapy work for you in your practice, across a wide range of modalities, is a great way to improve your relationship building skills with your clients. I wish you the best in finding ways to use your play therapy training to deepen and strengthen your therapeutic relationships.  I’ll be back next time with some ways in which I use play therapy to build and strengthen attachment in the lives of my adult clients.