Playing in Therapy

Playing in Therapy

After seeing glimpses of what therapy may look like in movies and TV shows, we may have formed the impression that therapy involves sitting in a dim room on a couch while talking to a therapist. While speaking about your problems is a part of therapy, there are other techniques that can help you to look at your challenges from another angle. These can add to your toolbox when managing your stressors and help to loosen gridlocked thought patterns. One of these is the power of play in therapy.

How is play integrated into therapy?

Incorporating play in therapy involves using games or toys to explore an issue. This allows clients to use different modes of engagement to look at their undesired thoughts, feelings or behaviours, and encourages emotional expression more easily. Play can range from board games, roleplays, scenes with figurines, sand play, or physical games with balls, spinners, and other toys. Stimulating parts of our brain linked to fun and creativity often evokes memories, associations and creative problem solving. Importantly, it contributes to experiential changes – therapy is most effective when we not only speak about a problem, but truly feel change happening.

What is the value of play in therapy?

So you may be wondering, how does play, something that is often sees as carefree and enjoyable, go with therapy, something that is commonly associated with grave seriousness?

By incorporating play in therapy, it can help us to: 

  1. Relieve stress: It allows the therapy environment to be more comfortable and relaxed. This is particularly useful for clients who are nervous about the experience or struggle to speak about their emotions. Play can also make us feel more engaged with the present moment. 
  • Learn about ourselves and the world around us: While using toys, we can explore various scenarios and delve into potential solutions without the weight of making detrimental mistakes. In a fantasy world, anything is possible. It helps our brain to imagine possibilities without limiting ourselves with restrictions of reality. Even though these ideas may not be feasible in practice, during the process we often stumble across something valuable that we had not noticed before either about ourselves and our needs, or about the situation.
  • Express difficult emotions through a different form: Play therapy is especially useful for younger children, because as quoting the renowned expert in play therapy, Dr. Garry Landreth: Toys are a child’s words, a play is their world. Play in therapy helps us to express emotions that are difficult to verbalise as we are using a different mode of expression. When we are stressed, scared, or hurt, our inner child comes to the surface – this is the part of us that often drives the thoughts, emotions or behaviours that we are struggling. Play in therapy can help to engage this child, and in doing so, lets us understand what is going on for us at a deeper level. This paves the way for emotional wellbeing.
  • Build a strong therapeutic relationship: While making therapy seem less daunting and pressuring, it allows one to loosen up and express emotions or thoughts in a more open and honest way. Together, this encourages a reliable, strong, and honest therapeutic bond to be formed between the therapist and the client. The therapeutic alliance has been highlighted as a key factor in creating long-lasting therapeutic change for clients. For more on the importance of therapeutic alliance, check out this article.

The value of play is not only restricted to the therapy room. Bringing play into our lives can have many beneficial effects for our emotional wellbeing. Find time to reconnect with your inner child and enjoy carefree, exuberant fun and games.

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