What is Play Therapy?

By Mary Tarbell

Imagine that you are a six-year-old girl whose has been seeing a counselor to help you cope with your family situation. Both of your parents have serious mental health issues, and you are being raised by your grandparents.  Of course, you have lots of emotions about all of this – sadness, fear, confusion, anger, relief, feeling torn between the adults in your life. But what people see is your behavior – saying “no,” tantrums, even hitting your grandmother! You have caring adults who tell you to “use your words to say how you are feeling!”   But you do not want to talk. You don’t know what to say, because it is all just too confusing.

When you see your therapist, she does not ask you how you are feeling. She doesn’t try to make you talk. She lets you choose what to do in the playroom, and you go to the sand tray. You use miniature objects to create a world in that sand tray, with an animal family, a treehouse for the “good” little animals to play in, and a cave for the “bad” animals to go and think about their behavior. The sand feels so good, as you run your fingers through it. You can make hills and valleys, even a pond. Your baby animals can hide under the sand when they are afraid.

Once a week, you create stories about these animals and what happens to them. The therapist joins in but you are in charge! The adult animals fight, and the baby animals try to get them to stop. It’s a lot like your family! The mama and papa animals get frustrated trying to discipline the young ones. But they are a family, and every week their feelings and behavior evolve. In “real life,” sometimes you still feel sad, mad, and confused, but more often you are happy and feel secure with your grandparents. When you leave the playroom each week and take your grandmother’s hand to go home, it feels like that weight on your shoulders is just a little bit lighter.

The above story is told from the perspective of a fictional client, a composite of several of the children I see in play therapy. Play is a child’s natural language. The toys are the words, the sentences. Play therapy gives children the tools to express what is happening in their lives, traumatic experiences they have survived, and what they are feeling and thinking. Play therapy gives a child a safe environment in which to pretend to be a mommy or daddy taking care of the baby, a cop putting the bad guy in jail, or a superhero saving the world.

Since March 2020, I have been conducting play therapy sessions by telehealth due to the COVID-19 emergency declaration. I admit I was skeptical at first; how would I be able to give my clients the hands-on, active play experiences that are so fundamental for healing? Well, of course, how we play is different, but what I found is that the things we use during therapy sessions are secondary to our relationship. The need to play is still there, but real healing springs from the connection and the playful time that we spend together.

Mary is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and a Registered Play Therapist & Supervisor. At JFS, she provides outpatient therapy to children ages 3 and up in our Mynd Works program. Mary earned her B.S. in Psychology from Clarion University and her M.Ed. in Counseling from Shippensburg University. She has 26 years of experience in counseling and play therapy, working with issues of abuse and trauma, foster care and adoption, attachment, behavior, autism spectrum disorders, school problems, anxiety, ADHD, anger management, separation, and divorce-related issues. Call JFS at (717) 233-1681or visit www.jfsofhbg.org for more information about Mynd Works Counseling Services.