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Play Therapy

‘To play it out is the most natural self-healing method childhood affords.’

(Erikson 1965)

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What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a mode of therapy that helps children to explore their feelings, to express themselves and to make sense of their difficult life experiences. Children are given a safe and confidential space where they are free to explore their expression through play, which is the child’s natural medium through which to learn, communicate and explore their world.

‘Play Therapy is child-centred in which play is the primary medium and speech is the secondary medium. Recovery from difficult life experiences can be facilitated by a Play Therapist allowing a child freedom of expression in a safe, consistent and trusting environment. Conventional talking therapies may be inappropriate for children and young people who struggle to put their feelings into words. Play Therapy allows children the opportunity to explore and understand these feelings. It can help them to shift their perspective of the difficulty or trauma of abuse so that they are less likely to internalise blame. The resulting empowerment and increased self-esteem can be the springboard to help the child cope with future difficulties in the world. Children from different cultures, genders and abilities can all be helped by Play Therapy.’

– British Association of Play Therapists Definition 2014

Why Play Therapy?

The NSPCC recognise that play therapy is a particularly safe and powerful intervention for children facing complex trauma as a result of sexual abuse because of the strong emphasis on the therapeutic relationship which facilitates the child on their road to recovery.

“Each child has the freedom to direct the pace and agenda of each session. By choosing play materials which make the most sense to him, each child is then enabled to express, explore and make sense of his experience within the parameters of the therapeutic relationship and a safe environment.”

British association of play therapists

The premise behind play therapy is that children’s language is still developing right up into adolescence, which can often mean that conventional talking therapies can be harder for them to engage with. Some children may not have the ability to put their feelings into words. Play therapy gives them the chance to explore materials; use movement; and create images, stories and worlds that can be expressions of how they are feeling and what they have experienced in their lives. The toys, figures or arts used for expression help to add distance to the child’s experience, which helps them to feel safe. The wonderful thing about play is that it allows communication to happen on an unconscious level, so the child does not always need to understand what they have played, drawn or communicated, but they will still be able to benefit from allowing those things to be expressed. It is believed that recovery is manifested in small gradual breakthroughs and shifts of perspective which can be noticed in the child’s attitude, behaviour or simply in how they view their experience differently.

How does Play Therapy work?

The play therapist strives to show the child that they are accepted at all times and free to express themselves however they would like to, within certain boundaries set to keep the environment safe, for example not breaking materials on purpose or doing things that could hurt them [Landreth, G. (2012) Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, 3rd Edition. London: Routledge (first published: 1991)]. The formation of a consistent therapeutic relationship with their play therapist helps the child to feel this is a predictable environment, while the maintenance of boundaries reminds the child that the play therapist is there to help keep them safe. This is really important both for children who may be fearful of taking risks and children who engage in problematic risky behaviour so that the child can learn appropriate limits to keep them safe.

Play therapy is a holistic form of therapy, meaning that it involves thinking, feeling, body movements, actions and visual representation. Children are given the opportunity to use their whole self to work through what they have experienced, and are therefore able to release and gain mastery over some of the memories stored in their bodies or deep in their unconscious.

In play therapy children are able to process memories or experiences at their own pace, and can create distance from the traumatic material by using play, art or creativity. Children may need to play out the same thing over and over until they have processed it and can place it in the context of their life [Gil, E. (2010) ‘Children’s Self-Initiated Gradual Exposure’ In Gil, E. (2010) Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma’, New York: Guildford Press]. For some children this can happen during one series of play therapy sessions, but for others, they may only be able to process small amounts at a time and may need to come back to therapy again.

Play Therapy at Lifecentre

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At Lifecentre, our play therapy approach is child-centred, meaning it is focused around the needs of the individual child. The play therapists spend time getting to know your child and giving them space to express themselves in the way that they would like to. It may then be that their play therapist is able to suggest some resources or activities to help your child to process their experience; or they may just continue to provide a consistent environment that can act as a container to hold your child’s experiences or expressions. Your child has the freedom to choose whether they might like to take up a suggestion or to decide for themselves what they want to do in their session, which could be anything from playing with dolls to making a mess in the sandpit. In this way, the play therapy is tailored towards the individual needs of your child.

When a child aged 3yrs – 10yrs is referred to us at Lifecentre, the play therapist allocated will first meet with the parent/carer of the child for a detailed assessment with them of their child’s needs and situation. This first meeting will take place without the child there so that they do not need to feel scared by listening to lots of adult talk. Next the play therapist will meet with the child for the first time for a child-centred assessment which involves play and explaining in simple language to the child what to expect. We ask the parent/carer to stay with the child for this first session (unless the child does not want that) in order to help them settle and feel safe. After that we offer up to 18 sessions of play therapy with an additional 4 around a court case. For these sessions we ask the parent/carer not to stay in the room but either to wait just outside in the waiting room so that the child knows they are there if they want them, or to be in town nearby within mobile phone contact. Review sessions will be held with the parent/carer (usually without the child) half way through the course of sessions and again towards the end to prepare for the ending.

If more than one sibling within the same family need support from Lifecentre, each member of the family will be allocated a different counsellor or play therapist.

If you have a child below the age of 3yrs who has been sexually abused or there is serious concern that this may have happened, Lifecentre can offer a one-off session with the primary carers of that child to provide psychoeducation in regards how best to look after that child, what to look out for and how best to respond to the child’s needs as time goes on.

“In my counselling sessions I liked drawing, playing, crafts, making posters. They have helped me to understand myself. Playdough helped me make friends with my anger. I think I can cope mostly now. Putting Granddad on a different planet that I made from sand, so that he could never come back and hurt me, felt good. I know he will come out of prison soon, but he won’t come back for me”.

Girl aged 9

“I have been able to talk about my feelings, feel safer with friends now. I enjoyed the creative stuff, sand and animals. Having that small time to talk…”

Girl aged 7

“It’s helped me feel better. I’m not scared any more. It’s helped me stop sleepwalking. It’s helped me go to court. It’s helped me stop hurting my friends at school. I’ve liked the teddies. We made a dream catcher and I found me voice making plate puppets”.

Girl aged 8