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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Therapeutic Process of Play

“Play relieves feelings of stress and boredom, connects us to people in a positive way, stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego.” (Landreth, 2002)
Working with kids, teens and parents who are trying to cope with overwhelming emotions and destructive behaviors is an intense way to learn the real power of play. Beyond all my formal education, the theories I learned, and the research papers and books I’ve read (and continue to read), witnessing the ways in which play can heal and empower individuals and families has been influential to the way I view and interact with my own daughter, and how I conceptualize her play. I believe play is therapeutic for people of all ages, but since the focus here at PAHM is children, I want to focus on how it helps kids work through everyday emotional (sleep issues, death of a family member), physical (tying shoes, sensory issues) & relational (fighting with siblings, aggression) challenges. Play has the power to help children work through their fears, anxieties and conflicts in ways that talking simply cannot. Play also has the power to heal and strengthen the parent-child relationship by bringing the focus to the parent-child relationship and away from the problem. Even those of us in the field of therapy understand the healing process of play is somewhat of a mystery, and yet there it is for us to witness every day. The following essay is a combination of how I approach play with my daughter and some of the basic principles of play therapy simplified for everyday use with our children as they play.
“Birds Fly. Fish Swim. Children Play.” –Gary Landreth
1. Choosing Toys: As an practicing advocate of "Simplicity Parenting," our family has very few, if any, battery operated, singing, flashing, etc. toys in the house. I feel they limit creativity, and frankly they drive me more than a bit bonkers. Luckily child-focused research on learning, creativity and motivation supports the notion that such toys limit creativity, decrease attention span and lower motivation to learn. So I don't feel too guilty about limiting the toys that are invited to play in our home. J So what kind of toys do we have? Children need open ended toys to encourage creativity, critical thinking and expression of the child’s thoughts needs and feelings: anger, fear, sadness, joy, surprise, disgust. Here is a list of toys with open ended therapeutic value; while it is not exhaustive, it is a good place to start:
  • Real-Life: Dolls, bottles, doctor kit, phone, dollhouse, family figures, play money, cars, kitchen utensils, a variety of animals, doctor kit
  • Aggressive: dart guns, rubber bendy knife, rope, animals, soldiers, bop bag, mask
  •  Emotional Expression: playdough, crayons, paper, scissors, tape, egg carton, deck of cards, soft foam ball, balloons, magic wand
  •  I think it is also helpful, though not essential, to have a medium of play, such as a large pan or sensory table of sand, beans, or water to hide, bury or build.
A word about aggressive play and toys: There is a misconception that allowing children to play with aggressive toys such as guns and knives will teach them to be aggressive. But child development research, and play therapy research in particular, shows children need to  express their aggressive emotions in play in order to release them, rather than carrying them throughout the day (to school, the grocery store, grandma’s house, etc.). Everyone has negative feelings that need to be accepted, noticed and expressed in healthy ways in order to release them; children are no different. Our job as parents is to guide them toward appropriate expressions of their negative emotions, “you’re really angry and you want to hit mommy, but mommy is not for hitting. You can hit the pillow or you can stomp your feet and say ‘I’m really angry!’” Developing emotional intelligence is key to raising healthy, compassionate and capable children, and play combined with appropriate boundaries teaches them emotional intelligence.

2. Setting the stage for play is important. Chaos in the home creates anxiety in children, whether the chaos is emotional (yelling) or physical (disorganization). Children feel less anxious when toys are organized, rather than scattered or piled up in boxes where they have to dig around to find them. In our home we decided to display certain toys on shelves (2-3 books, paper, markers, blocks, dolls, kitchen) and put specific toys in bins (paint, dress up, soft animals, doll accessories) for space and functionality reasons, but they always go back in the same box and returned to the same place. In addition to decreasing a child’s anxiety, toy organization also increases their ability to access that toy when they seek it out. I quickly discovered that in order for us to get and stay organized we also had to simplify; we gave away many toys and we put the rest away to swap out every few weeks. I’ve also found that displayed toys and boxed toys change over time; your child will lead the way in this matter as well.
Shelves: 3 books, 3 animals, paper, markers, crayons, scissors
Boxes: musical instuments, baby supplies, kitchen supplies

Kitchen, light table, play space
Shelves: blocks, light table supplies, puzzle

This is "behind the scenes" in the above picutres (LOL)
Addi orchestrated a morning meeting with animals, books & letters
3. So how does play "work"? Children want to connect with us and they want know we care about their thoughts, feelings and needs. Play is a wonderful opportunity to do this while also giving them the opportunity to work through the everyday challenges they face. Our role is to allow the child to lead in play while we follow without making suggestions or asking questions. Parents can join in the play when invited or to help a child become interested in play, but children make all the decisions and find their own solutions without our interference. Sometimes this means it’s important to “play dumb” in order to empower our children, “you want me to open that? Hmmmm. Show me what to do.” Our purpose is not to frustrate our children, it is to empower them; our goal is to help children feel capable in the presence of adults who seem capable of doing everything with great ease. Most importantly, this means we need to be present with our child while they play. There are several important ways to demonstrate our attentiveness:
  • Body language conveys strong messages, so our body should be facing our child.
  • Tracking our children’s play  it is a way to let them know we’re present, paying attention, and interested without leading or making suggestions: “you’re stacking those up,” “you’ve decided to put that there.” “you’re thinking about what you want to do next.”  When Addi is playing I don’t usually name an object unless she has given it a name. For example, if she’s playing with blocks I don’t call them blocks unless she does - a square block might represent an airplane or a bed. So I just follow her lead. 

Addi invited her Dad to play...he's in "jail"

  • Similar to tracking is reflecting our child’s feelings. Reflecting helps our children feel understood and communicates our acceptance of the many feelings they experience no matter how big the feelings. This teaching of emotional intelligence gives children the words they need to recognize and accept their feelings and  release them in behaviorally appropriate ways: “you’re excited you got that open,” “You’re sad grammy left,” “you’re angry about losing the game.” The key is to remember that all feelings are acceptable; behaviors sometimes need limits. 

  • Which brings us to the importance of appropriate limit-setting. No one can play freely if they are first bombarded with a bunch of rules to follow, so it’s important to hold off on stating limits until the moment they are needed. Limits are stated in ways to give children responsibility for their own actions and behaviors: “I know you want to pour water on the baby, but the baby is not for pouring water on. You can pour water on the bush or in the sensory table.” Or “I know you want to throw the jar, but the jar is not for throwing. You can throw the pillow or the ball.”  It is equally important to only impose limits necessary to keep everyone safe and the toys intact. Some toys may be okay for destruction (common destructive toys are army men, egg cartons, paper and balloons) – everyone’s threshold for this is different, so you will have to decide what’s right for your family. Be consistent, and remember it’s okay to change your mind, just let your kids know “I made a mistake. I thought I would be okay with you breaking that, but now I’m not okay with it. Let’s play with that gently. You can destroy the egg carton or tear paper instead.”
Addi loves to paint on herself.
We have established that sharpies are for paper.

A note on emotional responsiveness: Gary Landreth, a premier therapist and researcher calls upon us parents to “be a thermostat, not a thermometer!” It is our job to reflect the child’s feelings, not take the child’s feelings and make them our own. This can be difficult to do and may take quite a bit of practice. Imagine your child gets very angry and starts to get physically and verbally aggressive. You have two choices, you can absorb her anger and begin shouting back, which escalates everyone’s behavior and leaves you both miserable. Or you can look at her anger without judgment and reflect them back to her “you are feeling really angry with me right now. I know it is really hard to stop when you’re having so much fun.” This responsive statement is empowering for everyone: your child feels heard and understood without feeling attacked, and you remain the calm eye of the storm. No one gets sent to their room, no one’s heart is beating out of their chest, and the relationship remains intact.

Playing with our children and allowing our children to lead play their are two of the greatest gifts we can give them. Whether your child is working through her own "stuff" or just occasionally has an unexplained sullen mood, learning to help our children work through their struggles can benefit both our children and our parent-child relationship. While this is certainly not an exhaustive "how to" article, it can serve as a place to start. For more information or training please check out the books in the resources (listed below) and look for a Filial Training workshop in an area near you.

Sue C. Bratton, Garry L. Landreth, Theresa Kellam and Sandra R. Blackard, “Child Parent Relationship Therapy (CPRT) Treatment Manual.: (2006).

Garry L. Landreth, “Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.” (2002)

Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross, “Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids.” (2010)

Need more reasons to believe in play? Play helps children:

·         Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.
·         Develop new and creative solutions to problems.
·         Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.
·         Learn to experience and express emotion.
·         Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.
·         Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.
·         Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.

Children can express their troubles in play more easily than they can express their thoughts and feelings verbally: "toys are like a child’s words and play is the child’s language." (G. Landreth). Through play children can learn more appropriate behaviors, encounter the corrective emotional experience necessary for healing, and experience the resolution of inner conflicts or dysfunctional thinking.


  1. I am saving this one and emailing it to some people. You seriously come up with the best resources. I love following your blog. I have a 2mo old daughter, and even at this early of an age, I only like her to have toys that encourage creativity: blocks, play food, different types of fabric to touch.


  2. I love this post! I teach some child development to high schoolers and this is a great resource. Also I love you have written about aggressive toys. I have a friend in a small town with a little boy. He doesn't have any friends around his own age and so my friend decided he never needed to learn about fighting or guns. . . and he made up his own weapons and was calling them "blasters"!! So funny how kids will find a way! Thanks again!

  3. My husband and I took our (then) 3 year old to a therapist who taught us this type of play. For the life of me, I can't remember what it was called! PC something or other ;-) Anyways,the only difference is that they recommend starting the play with a few rules, so that the child knows what is expected of him/her, and what is off limits. This worked REALLY well for my son! I stick to two rules usually "We're going to have LOTS of fun playing with this shaving cream! One rule is that we will keep it away from Sister's face. Can you do this?" (something like that)

    All in all, we have found this play model to work great for our family! This post was great, because it was a great refresher! Thanks so much!

  4. Thanks for sharing and all the details! I love this piece of article of yours. =)

  5. How would you suggest to start child-guided play with a 17month old who has never been introduced to an environment like this??

  6. Wonderful information. I'm struggling with some pangs of guilt as I knew some of this prior to having my child and haven't used most of it. Thank you for reminding me of some of the stuff I knew, teaching me a LOT of new stuff, and helping me reconnect with the kind of mother my daughter deserves.

  7. This is an awesome blog! I am also a BIG play advocate and I applaud you for taking this approach to your child's childhood. I lived this with my own children and now work in the field of early childhood. I try to beat the "play" drum whenever I can. It is important that those who feel this passionate about play-based education continue to speak out. There are a lot of us out here - glad you are too!

  8. Wonderful blog post! As coauthor of one of your cited resources, the CPRT Treatment Manual, I love seeing Dr. Landreth's quotes and work shared with other parents. I raised my children with playtimes as he taught me to do, and have been sharing it with other parents ever since! Glad to have your voice added to this effort so effectively. Thank you! - Sandra Blackard

  9. This is a GREAT blog. Thank you for clearly discussing aggressive toys in a positive way. I am going to share this on my own blog, if I have your permission, and on our facebook page. Thanks so much for the great info!! www.fishsticksandkidsense.blogspot.com

  10. What I mean by that is that I am going to share the link and review the article.

  11. Love the quote "Be a thermostat and not a thermometer." So true! Thanks for the great tips!

  12. This is amazing and inspiring, just like all of your posts. Thank you for sharing! I'd love to share this on my blog.
    -Deborah @ For The Love of Learning


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