Why Children Play
Children's imaginative play is a direct expression of a child's inner self. It is our window into the child's world. When
we become absorbed in a child's dramas, we earn a ticket into this world, and the child will reveal to us everything that
he or she feels, fears, and wishes.
When children are very anxious, they tend to gravitate to the familiar and comfortable to self-soothe, as in hugging a
teddy bear or rocking a baby doll. It is a form of retreat.
In general, children's imaginative play is an arena of much great complexity. It is where they confront their fears. Play
is fueled by children's drive for mastery of their deepest concerns and challenges. In play, they represent their fears to
"work them out".
Play "works" because it permits children to disguise their fears in a world of fantasy. Optimal psychological
distance from anxiety-laden issues is achieved through symbolization. Children can experience challenging emotions in measured
doses that they control. In this miniature and magical world, they can triumph over their fears. No longer need they feel
small, afraid, defeated, or alone. In their dramas, they can feel empowered, secure, and hopeful. They can have allies and
protectors in the midst of the most frightening trauma.
Play Therapy: A Tool to Understand and Help
Play therapy "works" because play provides a medium for in-depth communication between the child and therapist.
The therapist's reverence for this expression, in it's simplicity or complexity, results in the child feeling completely accepted.
Painful emotions feel contained. As the therapist empathizes with the protagonists in the child's dramas, the child feels
increasingly supported, and the child's needs, fears, traumatic experiences, etc., emerge more and more fully in the child's
Through ongoing observation, hypotheses can be drawn about the bases of the child's behavioral or emotional problems.
This assessment generally involves collaboration with the child's caregivers. Once the child's underlying problems are understood,
the therapist can provide informed suggestions to the child's caregivers for addressing the child's psychological needs.
In some cases, the child's healing occurs through this process alone. Children work out their fears, trauma, and losses
in their dramas within this supportive relationship. In the miniature world of play, they develop an increased capacity to
deal with difficult emotions, they discharge their anger, they find triumph and safety, they come to accept their losses,
and they build new worlds based on their hopes and dreams.
For example, abused children usually approach their trauma very gradually in their play. Early dramas may include themes
of love and safety, to build a foundation for facing the more threatening subject matter. They may then play about super-heros,
or docile and predatory animals. Next, they may play about police fighting criminals, still disguising the events related
to their abuse. In time, they can play directly about their trauma, identifying perpetrators by name, arresting them, or "telling
Some children do not have adequate inner resources to resolve underlying concerns unassisted. The play therapist will
intervene in these children's pretend world to help them conquer their fears. For example, some abused children feel too paralyzed
with fear to help the protagonists in their dramas. The therapist may subtly suggest resolutions within the drama, until the
child can achieve mastery by himself or herself.
Play techniques can be modified for use with older children, adolescents, and adults.
Art Therapy "works" with older children, adolescents, and adults, much like play therapy for younger children.
One's deepest concerns find expression in art, allowing for in-depth communication with the therapist, and processing and
healing of deeply-held feelings, fears, losses, trauma, and conflicts.
(Copyright, 2005, Center for Play and Art Therapy)