Play is a child’s natural language. Although it may come in many dialects, they use play to express themselves fluently as they go about learning to process the world around them.
So, it is not surprising that this universal and often for the children, a non-confrontational approach is used in helping them sort out their feelings, concerns and hindrances.
That is the idea behind the type of counselling available to kids known as play and art therapy.
Jacki Short, Registered Play Therapist and Principal Psychologist at Sydney Centre for Creative Change says that activities based on art, craft, toys, games, poetry and role-play are often used to help a child with a range of issues, ranging from anxiety, stress, bullying, domestic violence and disruption, loss of a loved one as well as developmental delays.
Regardless of the presenting issue, Short believes that play therapy has the power to allow children to tell their story and come to a resolution of events in their own time and in their own way.
One of the ways this can be achieved is through the underlying fundamental principle of play and art therapy - the level of direction provided in a session. This can move across a spectrum – from being highly structured and therapist-led to free-form and child-led, she explains.
“The benefit of working in that child-led or a non-directive way is that I respect the integrity and the pace at which the child needs to work in a way that I’m not able to do if I’m in control and actively directing what happens.”
The exposure to different activities and a choice to select what they want to be involved in is very powerful in helping to get to the root of a problem, she says. Short describes the story of a young boy who was referred to her through the school’s counselling service. Given a choice of toys and other props to play with, he chose to play with “bear cards” - cards that has pictures of bears displaying a wide range of emotions. “Through this, he was able to describe what was happening for him at home. Being able to use toys to tell his story was far less threatening for him than answering questions,” she says.
For adolescents, play therapy works better if it is slightly more directed and if it provides them with opportunities to become the mature young person they are growing into, she adds.
Instead of puppets and play-doh, Short uses art-work such as a collage, music and some forms of drama therapy for pre-teens and teens.
“Adventure games particularly for teen boys and really active girls can be excellent ways of exploring the world and pushing the limits of what our bodies can do and take emotional risks with ourselves that we might not have been able to when we were younger,” she adds.
Sometimes, when the presenting issue is secondary, a child may feel distressed – especially if their own family member or friend is involved in a stressful situation. Play therapy can be extended to those children affected by a particular event in much the same way as traditional counselling.
In Starlight Express Rooms across children’s hospitals in Australia, play and art therapy is very prominent in the way Captain Starlights alleviate the challenges that hospitalisation can bring to siblings and families.
Jono Brand, Creative Director of the Starlight Program explains that helplessness, guilt, loneliness and lacking parental attention are common feelings siblings of sick children face. Simple craft activities – making pirate eye patches and hats and then extending the game to include the entire family, doctors and nurses has the power to embellish a child’s imagination, giving the children choice and a feeling of being back in control, he says.
Not just limited to a clinical setting, some of these methods can also be used by children in the real world, after the stressful event has passed. The techniques learnt through the sessions can equip children to self-soothe and seek to express themselves in socially appropriate ways when faced with other challenging situations. Short says that the internalised sense of achievement they feel when completing a task allows them to feel comfortable, confident and thrive in their world.
“Regardless of whether it was the less or more directive approach, the idea is for children to have an internalised sense of mastery and an internalised sense that they have coping strategies.”