“Play is a child’s natural medium for self-expression” — Virginia Axline.
Although adults tend to communicate most effectively through verbal and non-verbal cues (body language, facial expressions, etc), children often struggle to understand and communicate their own needs in the same way. They tend to understand the world around them and their role in it through play. For this reason, play therapy provides a non-threatening, direct way for kids to share and process their feelings, either directly or indirectly. Play is a language for children, in and of itself, and this technique allows the therapist to meet the child at their developmental level and where they feel most safe and comfortable. Below are a few, but not close to all, of the techniques I tend to use in sessions with my younger (and even adolescent) clients:
Toy and Object play: This varies from using a ball to throw back and forth while developing an emotion-based language to utilizing dolls and plushies both for comfort and to have the child demonstrate activities in their own life without directly discussing the events happening to "them".
Externalization play: This can be used by incorporating art into the session and having the child draw or create a character that represents their feelings such as fear, anxiety, or anger.
Bibliotherapy: Finding books that resonate with the child and exploring the book together can help children grow in comfort and find solutions to the problems they're experiencing that they may not have thought of. I use this a lot in combination with psychoeducation, which is used to help teach children about the feelings they experience and begin to understand them on a deeper level, as well as normalize their experiences.
Role Play: This can take many different forms and can act as a way to model and practice behavior about a situation the child may be nervous about or explore personal strengths by creating a completely new and fictional character that possesses these traits.
Wendy Laza is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at Cypress Wellness Center. She works with children, adolescents, and young adults managing anxiety, depression, trauma, self-esteem, personal growth goals, and much more. In therapy, she integrates her clients' passions and interests as well as techniques from Play Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and more.