What is Play Therapy?
A Conversation with Charity Simpson- MS, LAPC, NCC, MDiv
What would you say play therapy is?
“Play therapy is an age-appropriate way to engage children in the therapy process that relies less on them verbalizing what’s going on and more so allows them to do through objects and through different kinds of play. It’s much more doing than talking. Talking is integrated into that in a more natural way.”
Can you give an example of what play therapy might look like?
“For example, if you have small children who are in kindergarten and their parents are going through a divorce, it’s not realistic to expect them to say, ‘I’m feeling a lot of internal conflict because my mom and dad are arguing all the time and I don’t know who to be loyal to and I love them both.’ They don’t have the cognitive and verbal skills to articulate that, but what they do have the ability to do is to use puppets or miniatures or artwork to create a visual representation or enactment of what goes on in their home. It’s a more realistic avenue to explore their internal world and help them process that, make sense of it, and communicate that to other people so they can ask for what they need. This way they can engage in a conversation and develop some type of understanding.”
What got you interested in studying and utilizing play therapy?
“When I was in my graduate program for counseling I took an introductory course in play therapy as an elective and loved it! I was really fascinated by it and the concepts and it made so much sense to me. It’s not just developmentally appropriate, but it accesses different parts of our brain. Doing something like playing naturally accesses the limbic system, which is the emotional part of our brain. It’s easier to explore and is a more cathartic experience. It was a hands-on course so every technique we learned we had to practice. Through that I experienced a lot of my own personal healing in a new way that I hadn’t experienced in years of talk therapy. There were things where I actually got resolution rather than management. That was evidence for me that this was worth exploring, so I started to study it more and did a course in sand tray therapy which is a particular type of play therapy. That’s where I realized the benefits for adults weren’t exclusive to me but that it was beneficial for people of all ages and all backgrounds.”
Who benefits the most from play therapy?
“Play therapy is kind of the only mode of therapy that is appropriate for small children. With preschool and kindergarten ages there’s not much else that will benefit them. I have found that with elementary and middle school aged kids it’s a good way to blend talk and play therapy and that’s what I do with the majority of those kids. We still do a lot of ‘doing’ because it keeps them engaged and it’s naturally relaxing for them to be doing something and it’s easier to access their emotions, but we’re also talking about the things that press your buttons and what you can do to calm down.”
What would you like for people considering bringing their child to you for play therapy to know?
“Obviously, it does not initially look like most people’s concept of therapy. However, it is a gross misconception to think that therapeutic things aren’t happening while playing. The way I do play therapy is initially non-directive, so I feel very strongly that I am a child-centered play therapist and it’s the child’s space. When they come to my office they get to make the vast majority of decisions- within reasonable safety limits- and initially it’s about me following them and seeing what they explore, how they engage with things, where they resist, and through that I do a lot of questioning and explore a lot of different things. It gets gradually more directive for me, so we’re going to address those things but the idea is to do it in a way that the child is receptive to and is able to successfully engage in. And for parents who do sometimes participate in the therapy sessions and are observing and the counselor is coaching them on how to play with their kids. But parents can learn a lot from that to strengthen the bond and attachment with their kid. They can learn how to use play at home to teach instead of just traditional forms of discipline.”