The Art of Play Therapy
Leading Emotional Dynamics expert, Erik Fisher, Ph.D., aka Dr. E…, has been changing the lives of children, teens and adults for two decades. As a psychologist, media consultant and author, his unique and creative approach to his work has earned him the respect and accolades of his clientele, his colleagues, and the media. On the radio, he has been providing interviews for more than 15 years on stations across North America and has been interviewed for countless print articles in magazines, from Parents to Cosmopolitan, and newspapers across the country from The Atlanta Constitution to the Chicago Tribune the the L.A. Times. Dr. E… has two published books, The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With and The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict: Understanding Emotions and Power Struggles and proposals for three book concepts. As he says, "Life happens for us, not to us, and understanding that is the key to our own empowerment."
When playing with and/or observing your kids, remember the Benefits of Play - Communication, Cognitive, Creative, Emotional, Physical and Social - and try to find balance.
Here are 5 play idea suggestions:
- Memory: Cognitive, Social, Emotional
- DIY Doll Nursery: Physical, Emotional, Social, Creative
- Musical Feelings: Physical, Emotional, Social, Communication
- Charades: Physical, Emotional, Communication, Social, Creative
- Two Truths and a Tale: Emotional, Communication, Creativity, Social and Cognitive
About 20 years ago I was working with an 8 year-old child who was struggling emotionally and behaviorally, and I remember her mother, who was observing so that she could learn how to interact with her daughter saying, “This is a waste of time. What does playing a game in therapy have to do with helping my daughter?” While I knew that there were many issues to address with the mother’s single comment, it became very clear how challenging the issues were between mother and daughter. And after asking clarifying questions and helping her see the bigger issues, the mother acknowledged that her parents never played with her, and thus was part of the problem.
Many parents may not understand the value of play with their kids, and many question the value of play, even in therapy. The key for me, especially during therapy, is not to think like an adult and what I want to get from the child (or adult). It’s more helpful to be present with the child (or adult) to see what they want to show me.
There are so many things that can be learned and healed through play therapy, and it transcends language. The first language for us in life is emotion, communicated through behavior: smiling, crying, reaching, hugging, pushing, hitting, laughing… and this initial language does not go away just because we learn to speak.
Many of our preverbal experiences may be stored within our unconscious and may not have words. This is where play therapy often enters in observing and working with the play process, and there are many more benefits.
Allowing kids the safe place to play out what they may not have words for has been a powerful part of my and others work in this arena. Whether it is with toys, dolls, action figures, blocks, pictures, stories… I’m looking for the themes, the original story, the evolution of the story, the body language, the subtle and obvious emotion both in the office and outside the office, and more. The words often come later, and we can also help them put words to what they feel during play, in their own time, not mine. Sometimes others (parents, siblings, grandparents) may be part of that process, and sometimes not. It’s best to give that power to the child, because so many of our issues come from times when we felt powerless.
Engaging in play therapy also goes far beyond just working through issues:
- Play chess to see how people approach life and help them learn about themselves and life strategies.
- Play darts to talk about goal setting.
- Play checkers to talk about first moves and planning and Chinese checkers to talk about teamwork and families…
- Play Jenga to talk about integrity, planning, and patience.
Additionally, when kids are distracted by play, they often talk more about things they wouldn’t talk about if we were just sitting in a room. It takes the pressure off feeling like one has to perform for others. Therapy is a process best left to the professional, and while I don’t recommend people trying to analyze their kids without some guidance, parents can still do some of the following in the process, record observations so that you can provide potential feedback, and decide how to move forward.
- Observe your kids play and see the style: aggressive, withdrawn, cooperative, argumentative.
- What do they like to play with? Action figures, technology, board games, other kids
- Don’t critique or judge, while you may see if you can offer some feedback while recognizing that even the feedback you may provide could be part of the problem.
So, if your child and or even you are having a tough time and want the therapeutic process to be engaging, fun and be open to learn about yourself in a different way, give play therapy a try.