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by Allison Hadley, Clinical Intern for Owens & Associates’ blog

One of my favorite playtime memories is from when I was about 6- or 7-years old. I had always loved dogs, and I had a new favorite movie that just came out: Homeward Bound, the lovable story about two dogs and a cat getting lost in the wilderness in search of their human owners. At recess, I would get at least half of the 12 kids in my class to ‘play dogs’ with me, and oftentimes we would recreate the movie Homeward Bound. I was almost always the dog Chance, who was voiced by Michael J. Fox, because he was funny and curious. He was my favorite. Since Chance was the main character of the movie, I usually lead our pack of ‘dogs’ around the field or in the gym. As ‘dogs’ (and a couple ‘cats’), we would pretend to be running through the wilderness, having adventures and playing.

To some people, that might sound a little weird! I remember a few of the other kids not participating because they thought it was strange, and sometimes our teacher would laugh or ask us to stop because she didn’t want us running around on our hands and knees or ‘barking’. On the surface, it probably seemed like I was just a kid who really loved dogs and the movie Homeward Bound; I made no secret of my having all the AKC-registered dog breeds memorized and dressing up as a dog for Halloween. In retrospect, though, I have a good idea of what a counselor who uses play therapy might have picked up on:

I was extremely shy as a child, and prior to my attending school in Illinois, I had been bullied regularly at the daycare program I attended in the state where I was born. I was also bullied by the kids at the home-daycare places I would go to after school and in the summer. It was hard for me to make friends with my peers and talk to adults because I was afraid they might make fun of me or hurt me. But when I was a ‘dog’ or Chance? I was a leader. My classmates looked up to me and liked me. People liked me, because everybody likes dogs! I could be free as a ‘dog’ or Chance and run around in the pretend-woods. I had a ‘pack’, or friends. It was a great feeling, and I loved ‘playing dogs’. If you had asked me back then, though, why I liked playing dogs, I probably would have said, “Because I think it’s fun and I like dogs.”

One of the biggest reasons play therapy works is because play is the natural expression, or language, of children. Kids do not always have the words for what is bothering them, because their brains have not developed enough to understand how to express those feelings (Getz 2011, Landreth & Bratton 1999). They simply don’t have those functions yet. There are children who are not verbal at all, sometimes as a result of the autism spectrum, severe anxiety, or trauma. Having a safe, comfortable space for children to express themselves in their natural way, through play, is a helpful, therapeutic process for them. Studies consistently show that play therapy has helped children with social and behavioral difficulties and modifications, communication, emotional regulation, problem-solving, and has helped repair damage from traumas (Hillman 2018, Casado-Frankel 2016, Baggerly & Jenkins 2009, Landreth & Bratton 1999). This extensive research is what has made play therapy what we in the mental health field call an evidence-based treatment, meaning it has peer-reviewed studies to back up its effectiveness as a way to help clients.

Another important reason play therapy works is because there is a highly trained counseling professional who is using it with children. Due to this training, the counselor has learned how to understand the child through their personal expression in play, and can communicate back through the child’s play to help them (Casado-Frankel 2016). For a kid, though, the best part of this may be that they get to have the full attention of an adult for anywhere between 45- and 60-minutes! The counselor can also show parents how to play with their kid so they can best understand them, too. This work with parents is incredibly helpful, because kids spend most of their time at home and with parents than they do in play therapy (Getz 2011).

How could play therapy have helped me in my playtime example from earlier? Though play therapy usually involves actual objects, like toys or puppets, my example could still work. The play therapist might have shown me how to stand up for myself while we pretended to be dogs, or how best to make connections with other people (which, of course, would be different than how dogs meet!). They could have explained to my parents how best to talk with me about my concerns and fears through play, and reaffirm the lessons I was learning. The key here is that the counselor would be on my 7-year old level, speaking my language as a kid pretending to be a dog, so that I could learn how best to handle struggles in my real life as a growing kid.

Take a moment to think of some of your favorite playtime memories as a child, and what you learned from them! Feel free to check out the references below for more examples of why play therapy works.

References

Baggerly, J., & Jenkins, W.W. (2009). The effectiveness of child-centered play therapy on developmental and diagnostic factors in children who are homeless. International Journal of Play Therapy, 18(1), 45-55.

Casado-Frankel, T. (2016). Child’s play: How play therapy works. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201601/child-s-play-how-play-therapy-works

Getz, L. (2011). The power of play therapy. Social Work Today, 11(3), p. 20. Retrieved from: http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051711p20.shtml

Hillman, H. (2018). Child-centered play therapy as an intervention for children with autism: A literature review. International Journal of Play Therapy, 27(4), 198-204. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pla0000083

Homeward Bound (1993). Retrieved from: https://imdb.com/title/tt0107131/

Landreth, G., & Bratton, S. (1999). Play therapy. ERIC Digest. Retrieved from: http://www.counseling.org/Resources/Library/ERIC%20Digests/99-01.pdf