Life Lessons from the Play Therapy Room
How often do we, as adults, catch ourselves re-learning something we knew how to do quite naturally as children? Part of the joy in observing a child’s play is seeing our human heart at work in a simplified way. As children, we instinctively listen to our heart, follow our intuition, and believe in the magnificent. Over time, many “grown-up’s” somehow forget the basic elements of happy, healthy, and whole-hearted living. Today, there is a wide body of research that supports how the needs of children should be met differently than those of adults. However, we must not forget the many ways adults are similar to children in our basic emotional needs. Professionals of psychology are trained in how to facilitate healing with children, in a type of therapy known as “Play Therapy”. Play Therapy uses basic principles to create a safe space for children to heal and grow simply through their expression of play and creativity. Amazingly, when these simple principles are applied to the human person – regardless of age – we can enrich our relationships and reconnect to our early, in-born wisdom. So let’s take a page from the play therapy room, shall we?
1. Safety is important.
Healing cannot occur in Play Therapy without a feeling of safety. If a child feels unsafe for any reason, that child will not be able to move forward effectively with any type of healing or growth. This is because the child will be more focused on protecting himself. How true is this of all people, though? We are simply not at our best if we are concerned with our emotional or physical safety. Crucial parts of our brain go offline when we are more focused on protecting ourselves, leaving us limited in our functioning. So we can do ourselves a favor by considering if there are certain areas of our lives wherein we struggle with feeling safe! If so, what is the cause, and how might we consider improving the situation? One more thought on safety: If someone in our life turns to us for help, rather than focus on how this will inconvenience us – we can recognize that “to this person, I am safe.” For someone to turn to us for help or advice means that there is a foundation of trust in that relationship, and our response is very important. By responding well, we can bless others with the growing ability to trust.
2. Self-assertion is a necessary life skill.
In the play therapy room, children are taught how to voice their needs and wants. Depending on the child, this skill can present varying levels of difficulty or ease! With a child who has a tendency to assert (and perhaps demand) their needs, the therapist is taught how to respond by reflecting but not always granting the want. The resulting lesson learned is that “It is possible for others to say no to me yet still care for me.” For those children who fear voicing their needs, the therapist must be ready to respond positively for each effort of self-assertion. This, in turn, builds self-efficacy and self-worth within children. The parallel in this lesson is quite obvious: We need to be able to voice our feelings, our wants, and our needs. For those of us who struggle to do so, we may tend to surround ourselves comfortably with people who anticipate our needs and even rescue us from the painstaking task of self-assertion. But in the end, does that really help us? And for those of us who err more on the side of demanding our needs be met, are we able to enjoy the peace and freedom that comes in lovingly being refused? Either way, our voice always has value and deserves to be heard.
3. Respect for other’s needs is a necessary life skill.
This particular lesson is closely related to safety. In play therapy, the only real rules are that each person and toy must stay safe. So, for example, if a therapist is facilitating a group-play-therapy session, children must learn that another’s need to feel safe is just as important as their own need to feel safe. In psychology, the term for this is “boundaries”. And as adults, we can attest to the fact that boundaries never stop being important! Whether it is a physical boundary or an emotional one, each person is hard-wired with a slightly different set of needs regarding what feels comfortable. And we can run up against boundaries at home, work, in the grocery store, and even on social media! So as we grow, we can each discover our own boundary lines as well as boundaries of those we love. The process of discovery here is one that is best approached with a kind and relaxed curiosity.
4. Imagination and Creativity beget Healing and Growth.
Something that comes naturally to children is creativity, playfulness, and a vivid imagination. However, these things fade in many of us as we grow. The clinical relevance in our playfulness is astounding, as it reveals our needs, our hopes, our desires – and our hurts. Nurturing our inner child, our playful spirit, and our unique imagination (however far-fetched) is ALWAYS important to our overall health. So whether it is getting into finger-painting or scheduling five minutes daily for day-dreaming and play, we can benefit greatly from reengaging with our inner child. After all, that inner child of ours knows exactly what we need for fuller living and happiness.
5. The human being is supremely intelligent.
Many professionals of psychology believe that the human person is naturally on a path to healing, come what may. What this means for us is that we are each on our own path towards health and happiness, just as a blade of grass knows to grow upward. In play therapy, this may be one of the most crucial tenets to follow and believe in. When a child enters the therapy room and guides her own session from start to finish, an absolutely gorgeous process of inner wisdom and self-healing is revealed. The only job of the therapist is to be a source of safety, acceptance, and love. Play Therapy is a remarkable process to witness that serves as a reminder of how we each have inborn tools to help us in our journey. We cannot expect our own journey to be the same as our neighbors. Therefore, rather than insist that others do things our way, we can merely be a source of love and encouragement to one another when our journey’s cross paths. One more thing: it is a moment well-spent if we are able to take a minute each day to reflect on the beauty of our human condition. Take a moment to reflect on your own inner beauty, profound wisdom, and delightfully imperfect humanity!
Joyful Note to the Reader: April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and we at Fuller Life Family Therapy want to remind our readers of the importance of taking care of our wee ones. Take a look at the below video explaining the extensive benefits of Play Therapy, and how it works!
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M.A., LMFT-Associate, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Dr. Amy Fuller, LMFT-S, LPC-S