Psychotherapists and psychoanalysts have long recognised the value of nondirective play-based therapy. This is when a child is given free-reign to play with what resources they please, however they like, in the presence of a trained psychotherapist.
What this looks like in my playroom, is that the child is invited to choose from resources such as a sand tray, art supplies, building blocks and a doll house, and to play with them. Equally, there are free not to choose. Some will talk, and a few will be silent. Some will play with me, and some of them prefer to be observed. Whatever they do, it gives me valuable information about them, and is therapeutic for the child. Although it sounds simple, this kind of play develops emotional regulation, learning capacity, relationship building and communication.
Some parents wonder why they can’t just do this at home. Nondirective play with parents and caregivers is a fabulous activity for children and I encourage lots of it at home. Sometimes though, it’s worthwhile to engage a professional, for a few reasons. First, we can assess whether the play is developmentally appropriate for the child’s age. We can also pick up on themes and things a child may be communicating through play that parents might not notice. We're also trained to be with the child in a way which promotes integration of all parts of their personality so they can discover and be themselves and where needed, process grief, trauma and past experiences.
Importantly, we can tolerate play that sometime parents cannot. This might be aggressive or unwanted play or play that is triggering in some way for parents due to their own experiences. For example, some parents may not allow play about death or dying, and children of parents who are emotionally distressed, perhaps due to grief for example, may not process or play out death themes with their parents, in order to protect their parent. This means that the parent cannot join the play in a well-attuned way. We can also tolerate and think about harder-to-bear emotions and themes that will be harder for parents of that child to do the same.
In a study conducted on bereaved children from the World Trade Centre disaster, researchers found that children were able to process and play out events and emotions much more freely with a therapist than with their bereaved mothers. Support from the therapists enabled the bereaved mothers to become reflective and built their capacity to play with and scaffold their children’s play (Sossin and Cohen, Journal of Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 2011).