What Is Play Therapy
A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every passerby leaves a mark” -Chinese Proverb
This mark is what gets played out in play therapy. If the marks on beautiful marks, marks that enhance the growth and development of a child, then play remains just play. However, if the marks on not beautiful and actually leave scars, then the play becomes therapy. A child’s play is his/her natural and symbolic language to show the world the scars that have been left behind. These scars effect the child’s growth, development, and overall well-being. If the marks are beautiful marks, then the child’s toy of a kitchen set becomes a place of nurturance. If the marks are scars, then this same toy becomes the symbolic place where dishes get thrown, food is withheld and heads get placed in the oven. If these marks are beautiful, then the child’s toy of a baby doll gets taken care of, goes off on visits, and experiences other adventures. If these marks are scars, then this toy gets tossed across the room, has food shoved in its face and gets yelled at. If these marks are beautiful marks, then the child’s toy of guns gets used to protect stuffed animals from monsters. If the marks are scars, then this toy is used to defeat all that is good.
So, play therapy is not about play. Rather it is about using a language that the child is most comfortable using and putting this language to work. This work turns these scars into beautiful marks. The transformation of scars is the process of play therapy. It all begins with the therapeutic relationship between the child and therapist. Before any of the work can be done, the therapist has to convey to the child that s/he is held in high regard. This relationship then becomes the foundation for turning the scars into beautiful marks.
As the child begins to experience emotional nurturance, s/he then feels safe enough to release the issues that never felt safe anywhere. This is where the work of play therapy begins. This work is very intense where the child is engaged in thematic play from the moment s/he walks in the office until the time s/he leaves. As the child exposes the scars, s/he takes the emotional risk of allowing it to heal. When taking this risk, the child, in this therapeutic relationship, will then open him/herself up to be taken care of. As the child experiences being nurtured, the walls come down, more scars get revealed and more healing occurs. This process can take anywhere from several sessions to several years, all depending are how deep the scars run and on how quickly the child views the therapist as a partner in this work of play. Eventually, play becomes play and the kitchen set is for cooking for one another, the baby doll goes out for walks to the park and the guns are used for protection, if used at all. So the child’s natural language of play, used as therapy, allows the child to turn the scars into his/her tapestry of life.
Dorothy Derapelian, M.Ed., LCMHC 12/31/03