Play makes it all better

Your Baby July & August 2017

It’s like a golden key that can unlock your child’s emotions, says Shanda Luyt. We take a look at what play therapy entails and how it works.

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.”

It’s perfect for kids

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 therapist-child 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.

A typical session

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 she needs to tell them what toys they could 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.”

Does my child need it?

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.”

Who is qualified?

A play therapist has a master’s degree in play therapy, Wietske says. “Educational psychologists are also trained to apply techniques used in play therapy.

How play therapy improved my child’s stuttering’

Angelica Louw from Joburg recently started taking her four-year-old daughter, Samantha, to a play therapist and is very satisfied with the results so far.

“Sam started developing a little bit of a stutter at two and a half. We were told to just watch it at first, as it was possible that she would outgrow it. For a while it did improve, but then we had some stress in the family, and it became worse.”

Their speech therapist recommended play therapy to complement the speech therapy, as she suspected that Sam’s problems were primarily emotional rather than physical. Angelica says she can see a big difference after eight sessions.

“The teacher at school told me that it’s a lot better already, and Sam’s much more fluent with longer sentences. We also saw other advantages: Sam used to shy away from things she didn’t know that well before, but now she’s better – perhaps because she doesn’t battle to talk so much anymore. So there’s also an improvement on a social level.”

Sam enjoys the play therapy sessions. “The therapist goes for basic play techniques (she calls it primitive play) like sand and clay. They also draw and play with dolls.

“The play therapist told me the reason this kind of therapy helps is that it deflects the focus from her speech, and there is no pressure on her to utter long sentences. She feels comfortable, so her speech is usually more fluent.

“There is also no pressure to say words 100 percent correctly like with speech therapy, because the focus is on playing, and if she makes a mistake, it also doesn’t matter. With speech therapy, Sam stopped talking at the beginning because there is more focus on what she says and how she says it.”

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