Play Therapy 101: Therapist/Child Interactions in Play Therapy

In the second part of this play therapy blog series, the unique environment of the playroom as well as the power of self-directed play were presented. This time, let’s look at what actually occurs during a typical play therapy session. This post discusses the different ways the trained child play therapist interacts with your child to help her develop healthier emotional and behavioral skills. We will go into detail describing the five of the skills that a CCPT therapist uses to engage with the child client: tracking, reflecting feeling, esteem-building, choice-giving and limit setting.

The Toolbelt of CCPT Techniques

When a child plays in CCPT, how does the trained child play therapist help your child use play therapeutically? At first glance, the work of the child play therapist in the room might not be easy to spot or understand. Let’s explore some of the techniques trained child play therapists leverage to help your child. 

  1. Tracking: During a video review, my graduate school professor once shared with me how a child stopped in mid-play to stare at his therapist, declaring with a scrunched up nose: “you talk funny!” The therapist was utilizing a technique called tracking, which is one of the most clearly noticed techniques in CCPT. Tracking allows the therapist to effectively act as the child’s play-by-play announcer. It can sound like 

  1. “You’re pushing that train around the track.” 
  2. “You are digging a hole in the sand.” 
  3. “Now you are drawing red and blue squiggly circles.” 

The purpose of tracking is to clearly communicate to the child that they are seen, and they have the therapist’s full attention. This is important because kids can feel invisible when life at home feels chaotic, which does not take much for a child. Tracking is a way for them to be reassured they matter. 

  1. Reflecting feeling: A second major technique the trained child therapist utilizes is reflecting feeling. The therapist’s verbal expressions around what the child is showing nonverbally helps the child begin to recognize, develop and deepen their own feeling-vocabulary. It can be as simple as saying, “you feel excited” after a child discovers a new use for a toy. “You feel frustrated” captures what they are experiencing when the lego aren’t staying together as the child wants. Reflecting feeling teaches emotional vocabulary which is essential for maturing into adulthood.

  1. Esteem-building: This is a well known goal in working with children because little ones often feel small and insignificant, especially when dealing with big, scary experiences they don’t know how to handle. The CCPT therapist understands that allowing children to work through difficulties they encounter builds self confidence and resilience. 

Esteem building can be as simple as letting a child struggle with opening a container, then celebrating with them with a big enthusiastic “You did it!”. It can be acknowledging “You are working so hard on that picture!” or commenting “You know exactly how to do that” when they build something or show the therapist what they have made. 

It is important to note here that CCPT seeks to be non-evaluative meaning that the therapist draws attention to the child’s effort instead of grading quality. The therapist refrains from saying, “good job!” as the better response for the child will be: “you worked so hard on that! You feel proud!” 

  1. Choice-giving: Choice-giving is an intervention that helps children become aware of their own preferences as well as encouraging their imaginations. When a child holds up a toy bear and asks you, “what’s this?” the adult can fall right into labelling it for the child. To a grown up, that bear may seem to be just a bear – but in CCPT, the child gets to decide. Maybe your kid wants the bear to be his dad, or big brother, or maybe a bully from school – maybe he wants it to be himself! Your child may not even be consciously aware of the symbolism or significance involved, but nonetheless, she is processing her feelings and experiences by using toys in rich and imaginative ways to represent thoughts and feelings from her real world. 

Choice giving can be about the child choosing what to call toys, how to play with them, or how much to imagine. It can mean allowing the child to make messes you would never allow at home! If the therapist feels it has therapeutic value for the child, your little one may even get to dump the whole sandtray on the floor and roll around in it. The child doesn’t clean up – the therapist does. CCPT is not about learning to clean up; it is free, self-directed, nonjudgmental play to organize what’s inside the client. It’s an artificial environment created and maintained to help your child process creatively in a safe place so they might ultimately feel more secure in the real world.

  1. Limit setting: Lastly, limit-setting is a tremendously effective technique in play therapy. Although kids get a huge degree of freedom in the playroom, the real world has limits. Nowhere else in a child’s daily world can they make so many choices and have such expansive control. Yet, the opening greeting sets the tone for the day: “Welcome to your playroom! You can play with any of the toys in many of the ways you like.” 

Limit setting is done in a very precise way, always phrased in this specific manner: “You may want to hit me with the toy. This toy is not to be used for hitting.” This I know you want to…but this is not for that message can be tremendously empowering for a child when delivered calmly in a matter-of-fact tone. Instead of getting yelled at, often without much warning, for doing something an adult dislikes, the limit setting intervention slows the process down and allows the child to make a clear decision. 

Therapists can even extend this by introducing logical consequences. It could work like this: “Timmy, I know you want to throw the toy, but that toy is not for throwing. The moment you choose to throw the toy again is the moment you choose for the toy to be put away for the rest of today.” This is a great example of how CCPT allows a child to learn self-control, emotional regulation, and the ability to experience logical consequences for their behavior. In this way, CCPT allows the child freedom, yet it also prepares them to live in the larger world. 

Conclusion

In today’s blog post, we outlined some common tactics used by trained play therapists in the playroom. Research shows that these techniques are highly effective in engaging the child client, empowering them to work through their life struggles and preventing traumas from sabotaging their development.  Child centered play therapy is helpful for any child and is a necessary investment for children who have been through something traumatic or who are experiencing life in a difficult way.  In our next blog, we will discuss how you can best support your child’s therapeutic progress and goals in the playroom itself through CCPT. Make sure to tune in for our next installment! 

 

References


Landreth, G. (2012). In Play Therapy – The Art of The Relationship (Vol. 3, pp. 158). New York, NY: Routledge.

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