Anyone who has spent any time around a young child has likely seen that nothing comes more naturally to children than play. Play is the language of childhood; in other words, it is through play that children express themselves.
In my role as a play therapist, I often hear from parents who say that they have noticed something different, interesting, or concerning in their child’s play. Children process their world and can work through minor challenges by playing on their own. When the issues persist, children benefit from having the support of a play therapist who is fluent in the “language” of play. The play therapist can also infer, based on interactions with the child during play, what is happening under the surface, so to speak, which speaks to what may be causing any problem behaviors or other issues. Then the play therapist interacts with the child in strategic ways to address these areas.
Play includes a wide range of activities, but most types of play rely heavily on the use of metaphors and symbols. When a child says something like “I’m the police officer, and you’re the bad guy I’m going to put in jail,” what he is actually saying in play language is, “I want to know what it feels like to be in complete and total control.”
While playing, children have the freedom to explore extremes which leads to enhanced self-awareness and well-regulated emotions. The aggressor comes full circle and becomes the healer/nurturer; the victim becomes the rescuer/hero, the destroyer becomes the creator, and so forth. Children learn who they are by experimenting with these archetypical extremes.
Limits are an important part of play therapy sessions, but limits are not set until they are needed; importantly, limits are always expressed in a way that acknowledges and validates the underlying motivation and/or feeling. Over time, children are not only more emotionally self-aware, but they also can make the distinction between their desires/emotions and how they choose to respond behaviorally.
Through their play, children learn about themselves and the world around them. Within the safe, therapeutic environment, children in play therapy also work through and overcome any obstacles that have been standing in the way of them evolving into their best possible selves. The result is an emotionally regulated, happy, and resilient child who is ready and motivated toward a positive future!