Play makes it all bet­ter

What is play ther­apy and how does it work?

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

YOU CAN DISCOVER more about a per­son in an hour of play than in a year of con­ver­sa­tion.

These words are some­times mis­tak­enly at­trib­uted to the great Greek philoso­pher Plato, but most play ther­a­pists will tell you that who­ever first said it, im­parted a good bit of wis­dom. It is after all ex­actly what play ther­a­pists do: by study­ing your child’s play, they can discover what is bug­ging him and can help him solve the prob­lem.

“Chil­dren com­mu­ni­cate through play. By play­ing, they discover their en­vi­ron­ment, deal with what so­ci­ety de­mands of them and han­dle their emo­tions,” ex­plains Wi­etske Boon, a play ther­a­pist from Pre­to­ria.

“Dif­fer­ent toys and tech­niques are used dur­ing play ther­apy to sup­port chil­dren in recog­nis­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing and ef­fec­tively han­dling their emo­tions. Be­cause the play room is a safe space for chil­dren, it’s a place where they can ex­plore new be­hav­iour and learn to be com­fort­able with them­selves in their en­vi­ron­ment.”


No one feels threat­ened or stressed in a place where all you need to do is play with all kinds of in­ter­est­ing toys. The ad­van­tage of play ther­apy is that the safe space and the unique ther­a­pistchild re­la­tion­ship puts chil­dren at ease, Wi­etske says.

“The en­vi­ron­ment and tech­niques al­low chil­dren to feel safe and en­cour­age them to take part in ther­apy with­out it be­com­ing tax­ing or that the child feels forced to share in­for­ma­tion with the ther­a­pist. Play ther­apy takes place on the child’s level and within his abil­ity, which makes the child feel in con­trol and at ease – that plays a big part in the suc­cess of this kind of ther­apy.”

Parental guid­ance also takes place, so par­ents can sup­port and help their chil­dren at home, and so that the nec­es­sary changes in the child’s en­vi­ron­ment can be made.


Dur­ing a play ther­apy ses­sion, the ther­a­pist can use a va­ri­ety of toys to eval­u­ate the child emo­tion­ally through ob­ser­va­tion and de­ter­mine the cause of cer­tain be­havioural pat­terns. The child’s choice of toys, will­ing­ness to in­ter­act with the ther­a­pist and be­havioural pat­terns while en­gaged in play all pro­vide clues for the ther­a­pist. Sub­se­quently, the ther­a­pist can ap­ply play ther­apy on the child’s level. Toys that can be made avail­able for the child could in­clude a sand­pit, dolls, doll’s houses, cars, an­i­mals, balls, board games, cards, clay or even art or paint sup­plies.

“Ther­apy also takes place on the child’s level – so ther­apy with a tod­dler will be dif­fer­ent from that of a child who’s al­ready at school. The ther­apy is also tai­lored to suit the child’s per­son­al­ity and pref­er­ences,” Wi­etske ex­plains.

Some chil­dren wait for the ther­a­pist to take the lead (for in­stance that she needs to tell them what toys they should play with), while oth­ers in­sist on be­ing in con­trol, Wi­etske says. “The one thing that’s stan­dard in all ses­sions is that chil­dren project their emo­tions and thoughts on their games or draw­ings. As soon as the child has pro­jected his emo­tions, a fear of the dark for ex­am­ple, we deal with that fear or emo­tion by talk­ing about it, draw­ing it or por­tray­ing it in play. In this way the child ac­knowl­edges his fear or other emo­tion and learns to com­mu­ni­cate it. Then we find ways to han­dle prob­lems like the fear sit­u­a­tion, so that the child no longer needs to be scared of the dark. In this way he learns to ef­fi­ciently han­dle the fear.”


Play ther­apy can be ef­fec­tively ap­plied to a va­ri­ety of prob­lems, Wi­etske says. These in­clude: • Trauma (di­vorce, crime, death of a loved one, new baby in the house) • Emo­tional prob­lems (chil­dren who find it hard to han­dle ag­gres­sion and anger, mood­i­ness or in­ces­sant cry­ing, chil­dren who strug­gle to adapt to a new en­vi­ron­ment) • Be­havioural prob­lems (chil­dren who bite or bully, fears for spe­cific sit­u­a­tions, or sud­den changes in be­hav­iour) • So­cial prob­lems (chil­dren who strug­gle to make friends, to sus­tain friend­ships or who don’t have the nec­es­sary so­cial skills to be ac­cepted within the group)

“A good rule of thumb to de­ter­mine whether play ther­apy is nec­es­sary is when a child strug­gles to han­dle ev­ery­day events with ease after a trau­matic event or when the par­ent or school no­tice sud­den changes in be­hav­iour in a child,” Wi­etske says.

“Par­ents know their child, and when they’re wor­ried about their child’s de­vel­op­ment or be­hav­iour they should rather deal with it.”


A play ther­a­pist has a master’s de­gree in play ther­apy, Wi­etske says.

“Ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gists and clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gists are also trained to ap­ply tech­niques used in play ther­apy.” YB

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