What is Therapeutic Play?
Celine Stonex (Guest Play Therapist)
Play is a child's innate way of expressing themselves. Engaging in playful activities fosters connection, joy, and laughter. It's an instinctual, purposeful, and delightful activity that isn't driven by a specific objective. From the moment they're born, infants embark on a journey of self-discovery through play, exploring their bodies, observing their surroundings and connecting with those around them.
Play is essential to a child's development. Much like adults turn to sports, mindfulness, music, art or hobbies to unwind from daily stresses, children utilise play for relaxation and understanding. Through play, kids can navigate and interpret challenging experiences, making it a therapeutic tool where they can revisit and make sense of unsettling situations.
Here are a few different types of play and what the benefits are:
1. Cooperative play
This is a great way to develop teamwork, turn-taking and new perspectives! We are inherently social creatures, however all too often we are encouraged to be competitive with one another!
We compare our lives on social media, we are faced with sibling rivalry, and an endless amount of tests from a very early age at school. So it’s really important to play collaboratively! This can be done through taking turns to build a structure, or adding different ingredients to magic potions. Making up a dance together, or even creating something through a shared goal in a junk modelling activity.
2. Dramatic / Fantasy play
This type of play is a great way for children to develop their social skills and their empathy! As they pretend to be the bus driver, the post person, the parent, or the teacher, they are learning to put themselves into someone else's shoes. They are using their imagination to learn about how others feel when faced with all kinds of different situations!
3. Physical play
Physical play is a great way for children to develop their fine and gross motor skills, their coordination, boost their mental wellbeing as well as their confidence and self-esteem.
Children love (obtainable) challenges and love to move outdoors! Furthermore, connection and touch is extremely regulating, so a nice hug, hand on shoulder or even a (not too rough) play fight can be fun and calming.
Don’t forget to join in on the activities (when possible) and challenge yourself as well - you’ll both be basking in mood enhancing endorphins!
4. Sensory / Expressive Arts:
Creative expression helps children with their emotional wellbeing. Children will play with different mediums, textures, can hum tunes whilst they create something or they can even turn into collaborative works of art.
Try drawing with your eyes closed, or on top of your heads, or even with a cleaning brush or plastic fork, making silly and funny drawings so that no one gets too bogged down on what it is ‘supposed’ to look like.
How to be a therapeutic play partner for your child.
1. Be child-led!
All too often children are taught about the world around them and get little control. They are told what to eat, what to wear, what they are doing that day... So let’s focus on free, child-led play, where the child can use their imagination to turn the giraffe into a police officer and the mouse into daddy. Once we have entered the child’s play world, we can make sure to follow their lead and ask for clarification when needed!
2. Use the third thing in the room! (puppets, stories, animal toys, dolls etc).
We are inevitably going to be faced with all sorts of challenges throughout life and children have this incredible capacity to use play as a way of making sense of these. Using toys or metaphors can allow children (and adults!) to address difficult and uncomfortable feelings.
For example, there’s a new baby at home and the child is struggling with the change so they start to play with their action figures.
BAM! A big truck comes crashing into Action Man’s house and all of their stuff goes flying everywhere! There’s lots of noise, chaos and mess!
The therapeutic play partner might start talking here and go “ OH MY GOSH, what a crash! Action Man’s house has completely been destroyed! I can see by the way they are moving and stamping their feet that they are so cross now!
They really weren't expecting that and I wonder if they are also feeling quite upset and sad that all of their precious things have been moved or broken”
(Of course, this should be catered to the situation and language adapted to the appropriate age of the child!)
3. Have fun and be present!
Delighting in our children is so important to improving our relationships and their attachments. We are constantly busy, working, doing, cleaning, cooking, looking after people and life is filled with so many distractions.
It can be really beneficial to have a set time each day, where the phones and electronics go away for half an hour and we get to play! Why not try some of these out:
Build a den and drink hot chocolate
Create an obstacle course together
Make a magical potion
Play hide and seek
Go on a nature treasure hunt and bring back conkers, leaves or stones that you can later paint on.
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