Play Therapy: Foundations and Education

This week, TU student and OCH fellow Bisher Akel explores play therapy. As a senior studying psychology and biology, Bisher is interested in the potential for play to help children with various challenges, from success in school to emotional growth.

Play is not a new concept by any means. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Bernard Suits and Roger Callois have explored why it might be fundamental to our everyday lives and even our very sense of being human. In recent years, an increasing number of mental health professionals have observed and noted the significance of play in human happiness and well-being, as well as in love and work.

In 1962 on his study of children, psychologist Jean Piaget reported observations that most children in their first decade of life had neither meaningful expression nor the ability to comprehend complex issues, motives, and feelings because they lacked the ability of abstract thinking. Piaget also noted that when a child is in his/her second period of intellectual development, the child begins assimilative play with the ability to form symbols. As the cognitive horizon expands, play becomes more complex with rules, moral judgment, and language development.

My own research looks at play therapy, a well-structured and theoretically-based psychological technique that enables therapists to analyze and understand the motivations behind children’s play in order to understand their psychological ailments and be better able to treat them. Play, it turns out, is a medium of discourse for children with adults, with other children, and even within their own consciousness. It develops self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy. Play can allow children to relieve feelings of stress and boredom, connect to people in a positive way, stimulate creative thinking and exploration, and regulate emotions, behavior, and conduct.

Play in and of itself is a very therapeutic activity, however, play therapy is not mere light entertainment. Instead, it represents a unique form of treatment that is not only geared toward young children, but is also translated into a language children can comprehend and utilize – the language of play.

Because play is the primary way that children learn about the world, understand how different things work, express their thoughts and feelings, and develop their physical, mental, and effective social skills, play therapy provides a means to use the diverse concept of play to benefit children dealing with academic, mental, emotional, or personal difficulties.

Play therapies have been particularly effective in managing ADHD, or attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, a condition that makes it unusually difficult for children to concentrate on tasks, pay attention, stay organized, remember details, sit still, or control impulsive behavior. The incorporation of play therapy into schools offers a means to utilize a child’s disorder to educate them rather than attempting to maneuver around an integral part of the child’s psyche in an effort to teach them despite their disorder. There are even several recent studies that support the use play therapy in an educational setting in order to better aid struggling students in their academics. An Iranian study in 2010, for example, found that the children were able to significantly increase their attention and improve control of their hyperactivity through play therapy.  

Another study in 2014 examined the rationale for cognitive-behavioral play therapy (CBPT) and social skills development in the group setting through a case study and an eight-session social skills experimental group developed for elementary school children. The results of this experiment indicate that this form of therapy is effective with students that demonstrate personal, social, behavioral, emotional, and academic deficits. Other studies explain how the use of play in the school setting, specifically by school counselors, can aid students as they strive to overcome the many challenges that may hinder social and academic growth and success.

Such research just barely touches on the evolution of the field and the expanding views and understanding of the use of play therapy. So what does its future hold? The field seems to be growing both in terms of enrollment in the advanced certificate programs offered at universities and through more research on the topic. New studies might bring to light additional possibilities as well, such as research into the use of sports in play therapy and the incorporation of virtual reality. The way I see it, the possibilities are endless. Therapeutic play is not confined to the clinical playroom or the counselor’s office, and I feel that the use, credibility, and appreciation for it will only grow from here.