Why Child Psychologists Love Play

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Play

When I was seven I found an abandoned golf club in our garage (a 4-iron to be exact). Forget about dinosaur figurines and lego - this club quickly became my all-time favourite plaything. From the right perspective it was a starship, the bottom jaw of a T-Rex, a mountaineer's pick-axe, the peg-leg of a pirate, and far too many other spectacular possibilities to list. It wasn't just a golf club, it was an entire universe and an invitation to explore.


We have all experienced play growing up (perhaps you have your own "golf club" you remember from childhood?). But what exactly is play? While it's a tricky concept to nail down, according to psychologists Saracho and Spodek (1998), play has six core elements:

  1. Children play willingly and of their own natural impulse. As such, the motivation to play is inbuilt.

  2. Play is all about the process, not about the outcome; children in play often experience a state of psychological flow.

  3. Play is creative and non-literal; it is not about limitation, but elaboration and exploration.

  4. Play is governed by rules that may not be apparent to an outside observer.

  5. Play is often spontaneous and self-initiated.

  6. Play doesn't occur when children are anxious or scared, but is free from major emotional distress.

Play is a universal, and is shown to occur spontaneously in all human cultures, and amongst many higher-functioning, non-human animals (Iwaniuk et al., 2001). The bottom line is that kids don't need encouragement - they'll play with anything and almost anyone. For children, play is the adult equivalent of speech; it is a natural form of expression that allows children to problem solve, strengthen self-concept, stimulate development and teach cultural values and ideas (Hoffnung et al., 2015). The popular kids ABC show Bluey understands this very well, and may be why kids (and adults!) love it so much.


For Bluey and Bingo (the main characters of the show) play is as effortless as breathing. And, lucky for them, they've got a whole network of family and friends happy to get involved and help with teaching valuable life lessons. This isn't just true for fiction. A landmark British study by developmental psychologists Sylva et al. (1980) showed that the most favourable conditions for development occurs when the right balance is struck between structured and unstructured play. Put differently, just like how Bluey and Bingo need little help to find ideas or props to play with, when parents and families can provide attention, resources and the occasional spare time, this makes the experience that much richer for the whole family.


Play Therapy

So by now you might be wondering, what's the difference between play and play therapy? That's a tricky question to answer. Play is at the core of therapy and is often effective with children who are experiencing internal conflict (Morrison & Homeyer, 2008). Using play in therapy allows children to build and develop rapport with therapists, communicate thoughts and feelings, explore repressed thoughts and emotions, replay events in their life, explore relationship dynamics, and experience personal growth.


But how can play - which by definition should be spontaneous, unlimited, and conducive to a flow state (Saracho & Spodek, 1998) - achieve therapeutic outcomes? Doesn't it seem counter to the very idea of play?


There is a strong evidence base to play therapy (Bratton et al., 2005; Leblanc & Ritchie, 2001). A major function of play in play therapy is the changing of challenging and/or overwhelming real life scenarious through symbolic representation, thus facilitating opportunities for children to learn resilience (Hoffnung, 2015). This may be achieved by a sound therapeutic relationship whereby the therapist utilises both directive and non-directive techniques. In play therapy, it is the therapist's role to maintain an environment that fosters unconditional postive regard and encourages the child to play freely for self-directed healing. This is achieved by cultivating a warm and friendly relationship with the child, accepting the child exactly as the are, establishing a feeling of safety and permissiveness within the relationship, actively listening and observing the play in order to recognise and reflect feelings, maintaining respect for the child's ability to solve their own problems, allowing the child to lead, while patiently appreciating the gradual nature of the process, and establishing only those limitations necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality.


Play therapy differs from other similar forms of therapies, such as talk therapy, in that it does not deploy the use of concrete boundaries. As such, play therapy may draw on a wide variety of materials, including drawings, play-doh, sand tray with figures and materials, dolls houses, puppets, toy telephones, story cards and even dramatic play. Some of these therapies offer unique experiences, such as the kinesthetic quality found from sandtray therapy. The tactile experience of touching and manipulating the sand is useful for children with neurodiverse presentations, and is a therapeutic experience in and of itself (Kestly, 2005; Roesler, 2019).


Is Play Therapy Right For My Child?

When children experience overwhelming events, they may have considerable difficulty trying to express their feelings and how they have been affected (Hoffnung, 2015).


Play therapy provides children with a safe space to enact and reveal their private thoughts and feelings in the presence of a compassionate adult. By acting out through play a frightening or traumatic experience symbolically, children may take the opportunity to alter the outcome of the event through the play activity, thus moving towards a kind of inward resolution. This may equip them with the tools to cope with or adjust to problems.

If you would like to talk further about whether or not play therapy is right for your child, please feel free to contact the clinic and book an appointment with one of our warm and experienced clinicians today. Alternatively, please click here to learn more about the Lego Group Therapy programs on offer at Mind and Seek.


Denis Hamilton

Provisional Psychologist


References


Bratton, S. C., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 376–390. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.36.4.376


Hoffnung, M., Hoffnung, R. J., Selfert, K. L., Hine, A., Ward, L., Pause, C., Swabey, K., Yates, K., & Smith, R. B. (2015). Lifespan Development: A Chronological Approach (3rd Australian). John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.


Iwaniuk, A. N., Nelson, J. E., & Pellis, S. M. (2001). Do big-brained animals play more? Comparative analyses of play and relative brain size in mammals. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115(1), 29.


Kestly, T. (2005). Adolescent sand tray therapy. Play Therapy with Adolescents, 18–29.

Leblanc, M., & Ritchie, M. (2001). A meta-analysis of play therapy outcomes. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 14(2), 149–163. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070110059142


Morrison, M., & Homeyer, L. E. (2008). Supervision in the sand. Supervision Can Be Playful: Techniques for Child and Play Therapist Supervisors, 233–248.


Roesler, C. (2019). Sandplay therapy: An overview of theory, applications and evidence base. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 64, 84–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2019.04.001


Saracho, O. N., & Spodek, B. (1998). A historical overview of theories of play. Multiple Perspectives on Play in Early Childhood Education, 1–10.


Sylva, K., Roy, C., & Painter, M. (1980). Childwatching at playgroup and nursery school. High/Scope Foundation.


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