"Play is a child's natural medium for self-expression." ~ Virginia Axline
When most people hear the word “counseling” they think of traditional talk therapy where a person
goes into the counselor’s office and is able to talk about whatever they are struggling with. The
counselor then offers empathy and teaches new strategies to help the client. When working with
children, however, a counseling session tends to look different. This is because most children do not
possess the conversational skills, social skills, or attention span to be able to talk for 50 minutes straight.
Instead, children communicate better through play.
In the play therapy world, counselors often say that play is a child’s language and toys are their words.
Instead of communicating in sentences, children can process their thoughts, feelings, and difficult life
situations by playing them out. Sometimes this happens in a more direct way, where the counselor
instructs the child to play a certain way. For example, to draw a picture of their family or use the dolls
and dollhouse to play out something that happened this past week. Sometimes, play therapy happens in
a nondirective way, which is called child-centered play therapy. This means the child gets to choose
what they play with and how they play with it. Child-centered play therapy involves the counselor
trusting the child to play out and work on whatever they need to.
Usually, once a child feels safe with the counselor, they will start to play out various situations and
themes from their life as a way to process what is going on and tell the counselor what they are
struggling with. The counselor then responds with empathy, support, and teaches new skills when
necessary. Counselors who utilize play therapy techniques need extra training, practice, and supervision
in how to understand the language of play and respond to the child without judging the child or making
assumptions about what the child is expressing.
Caregiver involvement is a vital aspect of play therapy. After all, the caregivers are the ones bringing the
child to appointments and paying for them. Caregiver involvement can take a few forms. Some
counselors use a model of play therapy in which caregiver consultations happen separately from the
child’s sessions. This model allows the caregiver and counselor to thoroughly check-in with each other to
discuss updates, progress, and work on new parenting strategies. Some counselors prefer to integrate
mini caregiver consultations into each of the child’s appointments so that there is a more frequent
stream of communication between caregiver and counselor. This model allows the counselor to know
what the immediate need for the client is and allows provides an avenue for the caregiver to be heard
and feel involved in their child’s therapy. A third way to involve caregivers in the child’s counseling is to
have the caregiver in the playroom with the child. This model is often used to either teach the caregivers
how to play with their children more effectively at home and/or to improve the caregiver-child
relationship. No matter which model(s) is/are used, the important thing is that caregivers are involved in
their child’s therapy so that they can support the counselor’s work with the child.
The most important part of play therapy is for the child to be able to have fun. Children are always
looking for humor or fun things to do. A counselor’s playroom should be a welcoming place for children
so that they can feel heard and understood. The counselor has to be able to loosen up, giggle, and play
also so that the child can tell that the counselor is genuinely engaged instead of faking it. Even if there is
a directive activity planned, it is often beneficial for the child to be able to make some choices about the
session or have some free play time. Children will want to keep coming back so long as they know they
will have fun when they come to the playroom. The more consistently a child attends sessions and
enjoys sessions, the more the child will progress. Play therapy is not just important, it is necessary for
children for them to process their feelings and difficult life situations in a meaningful way.