Play as Therapy
“Children act out when they can’t or don’t know how to get their needs met. We are all children.”--Dr. Brad Reedy
When parents ask me what my primary therapeutic approach is to my work with their teens I sometimes feel hesitant to answer. The answer is Child-Centered Play Therapy. My anxiety gets the best of me in these conversations and I worry that parents will think that my approach won’t be mature enough for their teens who act like mini adults. I worry that maybe they’ll think I’m naive in my clinical approach or maybe, like many adults, they are scared of play. I’m not sure when that transition happens between using play as a primary source of communication, attachment, and attunement to it being something shameful that we are supposed to grow out of otherwise we are perceive as immature and silly.
Evoke is rooted in an attachment-based model which means attachment is the lens we use to see and interact with the children and families we work with in wilderness. Attachment is an emotional bond and is often referencing the connection between parents and children. This connection, established during our most formative developmental years, in turn influences our future relationship connections. If you work with me you will very likely hear me say, “It’s all attachment,” as I believe most of our core sense of self and subsequent wounds are rooted in attachment.
If you are a parent or primary caregiver I’d venture a guess that you naturally played with your child. Remember peek-a-boo? Or tickling them until they giggled uncontrollably? Singing This Little Piggy? Hide and seek? Until children develop language skills they use symbols, imagery, and play to understand and communicate their needs. When you understood their communication, you were demonstrating attunement which is that feeling of being seen and understood and this in turn creates a sense of secure attachment. Our earliest experience of attunement and attachment was through play. And then for many of us, we stopped playing.
I create therapeutic attachment through Child-Centered Play Therapy because I believe it’s in this space that teens and families can do the hard work needing to be done. It is in this familiar attachment space where we feel most comfortable and are able to reacquaint ourselves with those painful old wounds. I want to encourage parents to return to the fundamentals of play when they are with their children.
The primary tenets of Play Therapy are as follows (as created by Virgina Axline):
- Create a warm, friendly connection
- Accept the child
- Create an environment of permissiveness
- Recognize and reflect back the feelings expressed
- Recognize and respect the child’s ability to solve their own problems
- Be non-directive and let the child lead
- Recognize that therapy is a gradual process
- Establish limitations to anchor therapy in reality
I love how similar these tenets are to Evoke’s 8 Tools for Transforming Relationships. I take a Play Therapy approach in my work because my clinical approach is rooted in these guiding principles. During a typical talk therapy session I am engaged in Play Therapy as I am practicing these tenets. I encourage parents to practice these principles and here are some strategies on how to overtly practice play via letter-writing.
Playful Letter Prompts
- Draw an anger or sadness monster
- Create a fairytale of your family’s story
- Describe your polar opposite and share
- Draw a memory and have your child try to guess the memory
- Share your favorite things to do as a child and try to find the adult equivalent
- Decide which animal or plant or environment or food everyone in the family would be
- Include drawings of emotions or experiences; draw a map of your heart, identify which colors best describe your mood and why, draw your day if your day was weather or a season
- Ask your child to take a mental picture of what they are looking at in the field and then draw or describe it
- Tell stories with metaphors and highly descriptive language; harken back to those nighttime readings before bed
What I’ve given you above are ways to connect with your child--skills or tools, if you will--and I hope you find them helpful. I’d also love to invite you to reflect a little on the tools above and see if you can use them in your own life with developing and supporting your own Self. One of the underlying tenets at Evoke is that doing your own work and understanding how your own childhood experiences affect your current relationships is the greatest contribution you can make in creating this secure attachment with your child. Virginia Axline said, “Enter into children’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet.” And maybe you’ll find the place where your own meet too.