Play is the way children learn. In the therapy room it is also the language they use to express thoughts and feelings such as fear, happiness, and worry. This is especially true of young children. They do not yet have words for all they experience. Young children also need opportunities to practice the skills and language they do have. You may have observed a toddler playing with a doll or stuffed animal. If you watched carefully, you might have seen the child practicing their ideas about interacting with others as they played. This might take the form of a tea party with a favorite stuffed toy or it could look like the clash of wills in a fight between two plastic dinosaurs. It is all practice. We call it play, but this is a child’s work.
In the therapy room, children are encouraged to play with toys and games to help them talk and learn. Young children gain confidence as the therapist follows their lead in play. Imagination often comes into their play. As it does so, the child explores new situations and strategies for handling them. For older children, board games can teach tolerance for frustration. Games can be a vehicle for discussing difficult feelings such as jealousy, disappointment, and anger. Play can enhance social skills.
During a child’s therapy session where play is involved, the child is often given the opportunity to take the lead in deciding which game to play, and reaching agreement on rules. This allows the child to develop self confidence and encourages the feeling that his or her opinion is valued. It also allows the therapy to proceed at the child’s pace. The goal is to provide a safe space so children can work through an issue that may have slowed development or learn to handle a fear that gets in the way of being comfortable out in the world. Perhaps the child has lost a loved one and needs the opportunity to grieve without worrying about the sadness of a parent. Play can help with these issues. It allows the child to express difficult feelings and gives the therapist a window into the child’s world.