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Why Play Therapy Works

By Annabella Hagen

Before I met Johnny for the first time, I met with his parents.  Johnny was three months short of being ten-years-old.  He was adopted when he was just a few days old.  His parents were concerned about Johnny’s aggressive and defiant behavior, instances of lying, stealing, and inability to express his feelings appropriately.  His parents informed me that he had been to therapy before, but it had not worked out too well.  They warned me that he would tell me what I wanted to hear.

littleboyBased on his family history and his parents’ concerns, I decided to invite him to the play room when I first met him.  He could have said: “this room is for babies” or completely turn it down.  To my surprise, he began to explore and became engaged in play.  Aggression, empowerment, and family themes were obvious the first two sessions.  Subsequent sessions showed repetitive themes: family issues, babies being killed, abandoned and rescued.  Johnny seemed to feel empowered after each session.

Needless to say, there was no need to have a conversation regarding what was bothering him.  Yes, he had the verbal skills –perhaps too many, but during play sessions he appeared to regress to a much younger age.  Through play therapy he was able to express himself and I was able to help him and his parents.  Besides conducting play therapy sessions with Johnny, I was able to work with the parents, especially the adoptive mom through filial therapy (now called Child Parent Relationship Therapy).

The Association for Play Therapy reports that “Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies (Russ, 2004).

The case mentioned above illustrates how play therapists are able to better assess and understand children through play.  Children are able to express their feelings in a safe environment because they are not judged or questioned.  Through play therapy, children are empowered because they are given freedom to choose and control their play and actions with few limitations.  The main limitation given during a play therapy session is that people and things cannot get hurt.  Thus, play therapists help children feel empowered, and they in turn are able to gain the sense of control they may be lacking in their lives.  Play therapy works because children are able to learn to cope with the challenges they are experiencing.

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