The language of the child is play. Some children are able to verbalize their difficulties and worries, but generally, dialogue is not the way children process. As a therapist with an adult client works through conversation, the child therapist works through play. Children, like their adult counterparts, have important stories to tell. The toys in the therapist’s office are the means by which they tell those stories. Through play, children express the way they think and feel about:
- Their strengths and their struggles
- Their relationships and conflicts
- The world they see and the way it works
- Their life experiences, both positive and negative
The characters and the situations the child puts forth in play are filtered through the imagination, and therefore usually once removed from actual events. However the themes of the play and the relationships between the characters are usually directly representative of those in the child’s life. Toys allow the child to choose their own props for the story they want to tell. Although children often unconsciously disguise the story for emotional safety, themes will almost always relate directly back to the child’s life. Some themes children may explore in play therapy are:
- Do the adults provide nurturance and understanding?
- Do they intimidate and show disregard for feelings?
- Is home a safe place? Is the world a safe place?
- Am I cared for, and worthy of that care?
The therapist joins in the world of play, just like he or she joins in conversation with the adult client. S/he may enter with characters of their own, or simply observe and comment on the child’s play, asking questions about the characters’ wishes and reasons for acting in a certain way. The therapist gradually begins to broaden the perspective of the child, offering new ways of understanding or effecting change. Because it is happening through the metaphor of play, resistance to new ideas may be less forceful.
As the internal landscape of the child changes, the play will change. For example, one child who was severely abused as an infant spent the early months of therapy recreating dangerous scenarios in which no one could help the baby figure. Over the course of treatment, the play shifted, and protection of the baby became the top priority. If danger presented itself, the boy would yell “security!” and the protectors would come rushing in. This change in the play reflected a change in the boy’s thinking about how adults can help.
The world of imaginative play offers a window into the child’s reality, and provides the therapist with a way to begin to effect change in the child’s thinking. Accompanied by family therapy, which reinforces similar shifts in the family, play therapy can be a very powerful tool for change.