I’ve had many people look at me sideways when I tell them I’m a “play therapist.”
And I get it. Conceptually, play therapy seems odd at first. Like, the two words on their own make sense just fine (Play? Okay. Therapy? Sure, no problem), but for whatever reason, when you put the two together, it throws a lot of folks off.
“Play therapy? So what does that mean?” they’ll say. “Do you, like, watch kids play or something?” The implications usually being: a) “so you have a college degree in watching kids play?” and; b) “wow, people actually pay you for that?”
Well, yes, I do watch kids play and, respectively, a) yes, I actually do have a college degree in that; and b) yes, people will, from time-to-time, pay me for this. Of course it is a bit more complicated than simply that, but as a play therapist, observing children at play is indeed an important bit.
The theories underpinning the practice of play therapy are fairly dense, and it’s easy to get out deep into the weeds, but at a foundational level our very first understanding as a play therapist is that a child’s play is important. Children innately play. Unlike, say, tying their own shoelaces, saying “please” and “thank you,” or using a toilet, you never had to teach your child how to play. I’m willing to bet you never had to sit your child down and have a talk with them regarding what types of playful activities they ought to fill their free time with. Humans just seem to be hard-wired for it. What’s more, children play everywhere, across cultures, geography, place, and time; wherever you find children on this globe, you will find them at play.
Not only is play important, but it’s meaningful. Children’s play is a representation of how they view the world around them; it helps them to process the feelings that occur as a result of day-to-day or even difficult life events.
We conduct play therapy within a controlled play room at our offices — more or less a room full of play things, albeit with a specific layout, design, and types of toys. I attempt to provide a tidy and consistent environment for the child to come and play how they need to. It’s simply a thoughtfully designed room full of toys that’s designed to provide the child with feelings of safety, support, freedom, and to play out their life experiences.
As a parent in my own home however I am not always as consistent or thoughtful in how my children’s toys are arranged or displayed. I have been known, from time-to-time, in a fit of frustration to cram everything into the toy box; slinkies piled on top of wooden blocks piled on top of board games piled on top of some battery-operated talking dog of which I have no memory of how it came to live at my house.
But if play is meaningful and playthings are the tools by which my children express themselves, I owe it to them to do better. If child’s play matters, so do the toys themselves and their organization.
When organizing, consider:
- Less is more. Children can become overwhelmed by the excess that we provide them. They really don’t need 5 types of dolls or 3 different sets of blocks. If you feel the need to keep the surplus, perhaps consider storing some toys and rotating them out every couple of months.
- Out of sight out of mind. It truly benefits children to see the toys. Children will forget about a toy if they don’t see it. And if they don’t see it, it will not be a go-to toy when they need to express a certain feeling or process their day. Consider block shelving with canvas style bins to display toys in an organized way.
- Allow for creativity. Not every toy has to be electronic. The play room has few toys that are battery operated, and that is by design. This encourages the child to create the sound effects and use imagination.
When purchasing toys, consider:
- Reality/Nurturing Toys. This includes toys like a baby doll, medical kit with bandages, dollhouse with a family, puppets, animal family, kitchen food. These toys provide opportunities for the child to process real life experiences, relational dynamics, and their needs in a symbolic way, and the feelings associated with each. Additionally, toys like these benefit children’s social and emotional development, and give them a positive outlet for how they view the world around them.
- Aggression/Release Toys. This includes toys like dollar store punching/bop bag, aggressive animals or puppets (shark, dinosaur, dragon, crocodile, tiger), handcuffs, toy soldiers. These toys provide opportunities for expression of difficult experiences or emotions. These toys also provide the child with a safe and appropriate alternative to aggression that would harm them, a friend, or belongings. Your child can be redirected toward these toys given a safe outlet for aggressive or angry feelings — “Your brother is not for hitting, but you may go and punch your bop bag”. These toys help to decrease the stigma that some feelings are “bad or wrong”. It is not the feeling that is “bad”, but the ways we choose to process or cope with our feelings can be a poor choice.
- Creative Toys. Toys like Playdoh/clay, pipe cleaners, paper, crayons, markers, and dress up clothes. These types of toys encourage creativity and imagination, and provide your child a positive outlet for negative emotions. Creative toys also help your child develop motor skills, language development, decision making, visual learning, spatial skills, and innovation
Written by Bailey McAdams, M.Ed., LPC