“How is it therapy when all you do is play games with them?”
Ah, this question. I’m not going to lie, I get it a lot. It’s okay, though, because I can answer it confidently and I can fully appreciate where a parent is coming from when they ask it. They are investing time, money, and energy into the process and I can only imagine that it seems like a very expensive game of Monopoly if they think that’s all their child does during our hour together!
However, I utilise Play Therapy in my sessions for a number of reasons.
First of all, using play creates a positive learning environment. This is important because the evidence shows that a child’s brain needs to be in a particular state for learning to occur. If a child is stressed, uncomfortable, or threatened with their therapist, their brain will be spending WAY more time finding ways to escape/avoid/lash out as a means of survival. I would rather spend time playing so that my client can pay attention to what I have to say as well have the brain capacity to think, share and process.
Secondly, children’s brains are hardwired to learn by doing, not talking. Play provides a crucial opportunity for a child to learn about themselves and about life lessons that can otherwise seem very arbitrary. For example, parents are always asking me how to teach their child empathy. It’s an incredibly vague and abstract concept for a child to grasp, so one of the best ways for a child to develop empathic tendencies is through play! This could include identifying someone who is disappointed when they lose, praising someone when they play well, or including someone who is being left-out.
Thirdly, it’s an important platform for teaching explicit social skills. Some children struggle to initiate play or do not know what to say or how to behave when playing with their peers. As their therapist, I can role model techniques and strategies for them to try out in their own world (and also highlight when maybe they are saying or doing things that aren’t so helpful!).
Let me offer some examples of how some games are helpful therapeutically:
- Teaches responsibility such as through; handling money or in following complex rules;
- Promotes delayed gratification as it isn’t a game that can be won quickly; and
- Allows for disappointment when other players collect more properties or money than them.
- Deals with the influence of luck and relinquishing control;
- Needs player to cope with frustration if turn is skipped or reversed or when given a +2 or +4; and
- Builds confidence as it can be won without significant skill.
- Requires patience as there is no winning along the way, just one winner at the end;
- Discourages comparison, such as to other people’s boards or progress; and
- Encourages player to focus their attention in finding items on their board.
- Promotes skill development in problem solving and strategy; and
- Requires clear communication and trust in other game players.
- Addresses issues with anticipation or heightened arousal;
- Provides opportunity to practice frustration tolerance; and
- Allows for brief and passing moments of fear to feel less intense.
Ultimately, the very act of play, in a safe space and within a trusting relationship connects and refines important neural pathways. This is the crux of therapy as we are trying to strengthen connections in the brain that help the client to thrive and weaken connections that are less helpful. Play is rewarding and fulfilling so when I use it as a counsellor, I am confident that children are building positive connections to therapy and will more likely explore overwhelming thoughts and feelings with me, or even feel confident to problem-solve on their own.
So, in answer to the question, how is play NOT therapy?
By Penny Gibson
Child & Family Counsellor