play room
Image by PaperNest via Flickr

As part of my training for the past year, I have been using play therapy as a modality in working with traumatized young children. Play is to children as talk is to adults; the natural way they communicate and resolve difficulties. The Association for Play Therapy (ATP) has defined play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development”.

I’ve attended numerous workshops and conferences related to non-directive play therapy, sand play, and art therapy and read some of the available literature from well-known experts in the field, such as Bruce Perry, Garry Landreth and Dora Kalff. Although there are different techniques and opinions on the role of the therapist, a common theme appears to be the importance of symbols for promoting psychic healing and integration of inner and outer experience in children exposed to trauma.

Carl Jung believed humans have a capacity for conscious self-growth through innate symbols, or archetypes. He further believed that children contain a transcendent function – an innate striving for wholeness that occurs by symbolic identification. Symbols point to the neglected aspect of our psyche and through analysis, dialogue, or play, we can learn to integrate those unconscious elements into our personality and experience inner healing.

According to Jean Piaget, the symbolic function of play with elementary children bridges the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought most efficiently. Using different symbolic interventions, such as artwork and sand play engages children in expressing repressed emotions. One of the goals of play therapy is to restore a child’s functioning to a developmentally appropriate level. Another is to facilitate children’s self-efforts in healing through symbolic play in a safe, therapeutic container.

In the therapeutic playroom, children express their perceptions of the world through their choice of toys, games and figures. Whether role-playing, creating a sand tray, or drawing a picture, they tell their stories, and begin integrating the different aspects of their experience. By providing positive affirmation and unconditional love and compassion, the therapeutic dyad can create a safe container to encourage the emergence of the self-healing archetype embedded within their psyches. This progression from fragmentation toward wholeness helps children discover their inner strength to transform pain and darkness into love and light.

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One Response to “The Power of Play”

  1. Instincts says:

    Things that seemed inherited could be traced to early childhood training. Children were not born with the ability to be great athletes or musicians, for example, but were slanted in that direction by their parents or caregivers, who encouraged and reinforced the appropriate behaviors. This emphasis on the overwhelming nurturing effect of the parental and social environment–with the conclusion that children can be trained to be whatever one wants them to be–was one reason for Watson’s overwhelming popularity.

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