Play Therapy: Healing at Your Own Pace

Supporting Kids Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Emma Driban, JFS Content Developer

When we think of therapy, crayons and puppets might not be the first things to come to mind. Maybe you think of sitting on a couch and talking through your troubles, but when children require psychological attention, a direct approach is not always the best approach. Play therapy is a more subtle method through which therapists help children express what they find troubling when language fails them and provide a safe space to heal.

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines play therapy as “the systemic 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.”

Put simply, play therapists use play to help their clients more effectively communicate and resolve their troubles. But, like most aspects of our lives, therapy sessions have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual sessions offer clients the chance to continue receiving sought-after support in a safe way, even though the sessions may look slightly different.

“What’s tricky about play therapy online,” says Georgianne Sheehy, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker at Jewish Family Services (JFS), “is that, typically, you have a lot of materials at hand—toys and games and activities—and we are trying to recreate that online.”

Often, just hearing a familiar voice or seeing a familiar face brings a sense of connectedness and comfort. Fortunately, online games and drawing programs allow therapists to provide a similar kind of engagement to what clients could receive in-person. JFS’ Director of Clinical Supervision and Registered Play Therapist, Jane Galli, comments, “Online games and sand trays offer some non-directive play” akin to what an in-person session might offer. Non-directive play allows the child to drive the session and control the pace and course of the play.

Sheehy adds, “What I most enjoy is [a child’s] ability to tell stories. Their story really illustrates what is going on in their life. . .  Play therapy gives the child a lot of freedom to work through things.”

“[We] provide children with a wonderful collection of figures, doll house furniture, fantasy creatures, and we allow them to tell a story,” Sheehy explains. “It’s really expressive for them! In a traditional kind of therapy, we can talk or work through feelings to process and get relief from them. Children don’t often talk directly about their problems, but they can take play and props and, very often, those same troubles are worked out.” Though sessions are virtual, online versions of the same tools allow JFS’ therapists to continue helping children.

With schools closed, students get most of their social interactions through their screens. Online games and video games provide a safe way for children to spend time with friends, but they can’t make up for the missing face-to-face interactions.

“Experiencing school online is like operating in their own bubble with some connection to their classmates and teacher, but it’s nowhere near the same. It’s really hard on them and they miss it a lot,” says Sheehy. Studies show how crucial social interaction is for development; it’s where children learn to navigate relationships and learn about themselves and the other people around them. “It’s just something you can’t recreate online.”

Time away from computers, phones, and televisions is essential when so many of our day-to-day activities are tethered to our screens. Play can be a powerful tool for homebound families; parents can help their kids by going back to basics like coloring, building with Legos, and playing with Play-Doh. Galli adds that “playing outside is a great way for kids to get a break from all of their screens.”

Play is a great way for parents to learn what is going on with their children, what their worries and fears might be. “It may look like play, but it’s really child’s work.” Sheehy elaborates, “They work out all kinds of things through play.”

Play therapy offers children a safe space where they can express themselves and work through their worries without facing them head on; it allows clients to deal with difficult topics in a comfortable and familiar way. “Research supports the effectiveness of play therapy with children experiencing a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems,” states the Association for Play Therapy. It can help children become more responsible for their behaviors, develop new problem-solving capabilities, cultivate empathy and respect for others and their selves, and much more.

Jane Galli points out that “children heal differently than adults—they heal at their own pace.” Where working through an issue with an adult might just consist of a conversation, “working with children requires a lot more creativity.” Children need to work through their issues on their own time and of their own volition. “It makes the healing more complete.”


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