background for title news

Therapist Corner: How Playtime Can Heal

Hey, my name is Claire Burkemper, and I am a therapist here at Kids in the Middle. I am also working on becoming a Registered Play Therapist (RPT). My family and friends think that this means that I will just get to play for a living, and although they aren’t entirely wrong, they’re also not entirely right! Play therapy is essentially the recognition that children’s primary form of communication isn’t verbal, but rather through play. Children don’t always know how to put into words how they’re feeling. Children do, however, play/act/draw/sing out their experiences and emotions. The play therapist’s role is to encourage, foster, validate, and identify themes in children’s play to help them work through and master their emotions.

So how does play therapy help? Well, have you ever been through a hard time, and talking to a trusted friend, family member, or even therapist has made you feel better? Your situation didn’t change as a result of your conversation, but your emotions were heard and validated, which more than likely caused a shift in your emotional state. Children’s play is equivalent to those conversations. Children come into the playroom and are given the emotional freedom and support to play out their emotions. When children leave, they feel heard and validated and often experience that same release and shift in their emotional state.

Some of you may have had the experience of picking your child up from Kids in the Middle, asking how their session was, and hearing, “we just played.” This may seem confusing or potentially frustrating, but I hope that after reading this post, you will further understand the power of play and how you can bring that healing power into your home!

Child-centered play is a little different than simply playing with your child as you normally do and requires a bit of work and practice from adults. Increasing child-centered play time with your child at home can help to strengthen the parent-child relationship, increase a child’s self-esteem, lower tantrums, and increase creativity!

Below are some ways that child-centered play is different from regular play:

  • The child leads all play activities. You do not offer suggestions or tell the child what you should do. Follow their lead and their imagination. Match your child’s energy and tone throughout your playtime.
  • You and your child play one-on-one. This can be difficult if you have other children in the home, but working to make time at least once a week for one-on-one time with your child can make a big difference!
  • No Electronics!!! Unplug from the t.v./phone/tablet/computer. Set a timer and walk away; give your child your full attention.
  • Focus on toys/games/activities with low mess and less rules. Depending on what you have in your home, you may not want paint or other messy activities to be a part of your special time. Focus on activities where children can be creative and successful. This also goes for rules. The less rules, the better. (note: if a child does pick a game with rules they get to decide how the game is played. There is no such thing as cheating when a child’s imagination is at work!)
  • Avoid asking questions, giving commands, criticizing/correcting. Use reflection statements such as “you are holding the baby” instead of “what are you doing with the baby” and “you are angry with the baby” instead of “why are you yelling at the baby”. Say what you see and avoid attempting to interpret the behavior.
  • Have fun! This playtime is meant to be a fun-filled, positive bonding time with your child. Allow yourself to use your imagination, have fun, and get creative!

Child-centered playtime takes intentional effort from adults because facilitating this special playtime is not always easy. It can be difficult for you to relinquish control during playtime, but that is exactly what makes this play so impactful for a child. Children have very little control over their lives and environment. When specifically looking at children who are going through separation and divorce, this time can feel even more like they are out of control. This makes this child-centered playtime even more important as it sends a message to your child that they have control and that you support and respect that.

Difficult behaviors don’t just disappear during playtime, so you may experience these behaviors when playing with your child. Be sensitive when redirecting behavior during your child-centered playtime. First, set yourself up for success. As mentioned above, create a space where your child can freely explore and play with items in their space. Our playrooms here at KITM are set up so that “no” shouldn’t have to be said, and a child can play with all the items in the playroom almost any way they would like. When a child does explore a limit to our playroom, such as intentionally breaking a toy, a simple redirect, “I see you want to break that toy. Toys in here aren’t for breaking. You can choose to either rip up paper or pound on clay”, often does the trick. Trust is a key tenant when working with children. I trust that when given the choice, a child will choose to rip the paper or pound on clay; more times than not, they do.

I have witnessed shock when a child enters the playroom and experiences the trust, attention, and control curated during play therapy sessions. One client looked at me after a session and stated, “aren’t you going to tell me what to do?”. This message highlights how powerful and sometimes overwhelming control can feel to a child. I have watched that child grow in self-confidence, self-exploration, and freely explore their emotions throughout their time in therapy. So join in on the fun, and find some time to PLAY!

Claire Burkemper, LMSW