What is Play Therapy?

As a full member of the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT), and having trained in the U.K. on a BAPT accredited course, I feel that using BAPT’s definition of play therapy is the most appropriate. According to BAPT, play therapy can be defined as “… the dynamic process between child and therapist in which the child explores at his or her own pace and with his or her own agenda those issues, past and current, conscious and unconscious, that are affecting the child’s life in the present. The child’s inner resources are enabled by the therapeutic relationship to bring out growth and change.”

Play therapy focuses on children between the ages of 3 and 11 years old. During these years, children developmentally lack the cognitive, verbal facility to express what they feel, and emotionally they are not able to focus on the intensity of what they feel in a manner that can be expressed adequately in a verbal exchange. This is due to the fact that children in this age group are developmentally unable to engage fully in abstract reasoning or thinking. Just as an adult would approach a counsellor or psychologist when they are struggling with divorce or death, a child would see a play therapist to “play out” upsetting events that they haven’t had a chance to resolve. Rather than having to explain what is troubling them, as adult therapy usually expects, children use play to communicate at their own level and at their own pace, without feeling interrogated or threatened. Therefore, playing is the child’s language and the toys are the child’s words.

Play therapy is therefore an effective therapy that helps children modify their behaviours, clarify their self-concept and build healthy relationships. It is a therapy that helps children find healthier ways of communicating, develop fulfilling relationships, increase resilience and self-esteem, and facilitate emotional literacy. I believe play therapy is a way of genuinely connecting and just “being” with a child, and going where the child leads you. My philosophy is to focus on the child, not the problem, and to be sensitive to how the world is perceived by the child. Perception is reality, and it is the child’s perception of their world that is important to me, and not necessarily the facts in isolation. I want to be able to stand in the child’s shoes and feel how the child feels, see what the child sees, and hear what the child hears. Only then can I begin to try and understand what it is like to live in that child’s world.