While most of you were watching the Super Bowl, play therapists around the country were beginning their annual celebrations of National Play Therapy Week (February 3-9).   

National Play Therapy Week always sneaks up on me.  I know about it and yet, I ALWAYS forget.  And many of my friends and colleagues have been planning great events, activities and giveaways.  And I didn't plan anything. 

So, in the spirit of a playful week, I thought I would create another fun GIF-based article about play therapy. 

What is play therapy? 

The Association for Play Therapy defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained Play Therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development,".

If you are working with kids, it is the BEST way I have found to engage them in a way that truly meets them exactly where they are. 

What do play therapists believe? 

It seems counterintuitive to say this, but play therapists believe that children are amazing just they way they are.  We accept them, problems and all, with no expectations for change.

That may seem odd to parents or teachers who refer children to play therapy because of their behavioral or emotional challenges.  But one of the main principles of child-centered play therapy is that we focus more on the person than the problem. 

We accept the child exactly as they are.  Most play therapists believe that children are more than just a list of negative behaviors. These beliefs and attitudes are often based on Dr. Garry Landreth's child centered play therapy theories and principles. 

What do Play Therapists DO?

Honestly, I don't typically ask questions like this!  Play therapists do all sorts of things when working with children, adolescents, and families so it is hard to describe what we do in a single sentence. 

Play therapy include observing and engaging in pretend play, playing board games or digital games,  doing art, working in the sand, drawing, and also being silent when needed.

Play therapists follow a child's lead.  We use a variety of toys and materials, but focus on building a relationship with a child in which the child feels seen, heard and accepted.  

When Should You Consider Play Therapy for Your Child? 

If you are concerned about your child, then NOW would be a good time to receive play therapy services.  Often, people are told that children ages 3-11 are ideal candidates for play therapy; however, the truth is that play therapists are working with individuals of all ages!

Play therapists are helping parents/caregivers of babies to bond, play, and attune to their babies needs.  AND, we are working with teenagers and young adults using art, clay, sand, and games.  AND, we are working with adults. And couples. And even older adults with dementia.  

So, when is the best time to start play therapy? If you or your child is struggling, then now would be a good time to start services!   To find a play therapist near you, consult the play therapist directory here.  

How Do You Become a Play Therapist?

The Association for Play Therapy confers the credentials for Registered Play Therapists. You can see the full requirements here

But, the short version is that you need some specific graduate level courses, an independent clinical license in your state, play therapy specific continuing education hours, play therapy specific clinical practice and supervision.   

If you are receiving play therapy services, don't be afraid to ask your therapist about their training and experience. 

Why Do I Love Play Therapy?

I love play therapy because it is a truly magical combination of art and science. Play therapy is based on foundational theories and principles. These principles have been researched and studied. 

So, it's not MAGIC. I'm not saying that we are using some special potions or even that we have a specific set of activities that we whip out to make children behave.  Play therapists have sound theory to base their actions on.  We are not "just playing." 

But, when children with vibrant personalities come to see you, they bring a unique dynamic to the relationship that is formed with a play therapist.  And a play therapist that is able to communicate through play is witness to this really cool environment where words are not necessary.  

And so even though we are not focused on behaviors and problems, they do start to change.  Children start to feel better about themselves and that part feels a little magical to me.  

If you want to learn more about play therapy techniques and theories, please subscribe to the mailing list.

Why a white daisy?

Apparently, when people  are asked to draw a flower, the first one that comes to mind for a majority of people is the daisy shape.   This single flower (just the flower part without the stem or any leaves and on a solid black background) was show to study participants after being shown a high-arousal negative image. Examples of high-arousal negative images include awful things like violence, injuries and car crashes.  Two trials were conducted:  in the first subjects were shown a high arousal image and then either a) the flower image b) a mosaic of fragments of the flower image or c) a visual fixation point.  In the second trial, the high arousal image was followed by either a) the flower image, b) a chair (deemed a neutral image) or c) a blue sky with clouds (deemed a positive non-floral image).   Systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings were taken throughout the experiments.  

As expected, mean blood pressure was lower when participants viewed the flower versus the fixation point or the mosaic flower,  but what was unexpected is that the flower image actually reduced mean blood pressure to a level lower than the baseline.  Both the flower image and the blue sky had a similar positive impact in changing mood from negative to positive (with the blue sky having the most overall impact).  However, only the flower (not the sky) caused a reduction in mean blood pressure.  It was determined that viewing a simple flower image could in fact change a negative mood into a more positive one and also decrease blood pressure. 

The power of the single flower image was then studied in regards to salivary cortisol levels.  During this study, the high-arousal images were once again paired with the flower image, the flower fragment mosaic or the fixation point.  Once again, only the flower image was shown to significantly decrease stress during the recovery phase. One final examination looked at fMRI images of the brain during these conditions.  Through this imagery it was discovered that the flower image was effective in decreasing the amygdala-hippocampus activation that occurred after viewing the high arousal images. Researchers speculated that the flower image was a distraction tool that was helped prevent the recall of the stressful images.  

The brief viewing of this single flower image was shown to be effective at reducing negative emotions and created better functioning of both the cardiovascular and endocrine systems! Having such a simple tool available to help reduce stress and regulate unpleasant emotions and is one possible tool for interrupting ruminating thoughts or unpleasant flashbacks.  

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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