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Who's the Boss? How play therapy works.

Above is a picture of a sink I just met, but already love. Why does this sink excite me so? It is being installed in my soon-to-be-open customized play therapy room. With a sink in the room, children will be able to engage in sensory and art activities more easily. They will also be able to test limits more frequently, and as a play therapist I welcome that.

Children will be allowed to use a small amount of water in the sand. They will also be allowed to ‘wash’ a baby doll, or perhaps some other items. I don’t know the exact rules or limits for using the water, not because the sink is new, but because it will honestly depend on the child’s desired action. When children enter the playroom they are told that they can pretty much do anything they want and if there is anything they may not do, I will let them know.

What is that about? Am I just a complete wimp who lets children be the boss? You might really think that if I tell you that the children are also told that they aren’t expected to clean up when their playtime ends. Cray cray? No!

In play therapy, limits are set if and when they are needed in order to help the child learn self-responsibility and self-control. When limits are set, they are done in a way that validates the child’s feelings or desire, communicates the limit, and gives alternatives, if necessary: “I know you would like to keep pouring water on the floor. Pouring water onto the floor is not safe. You can pour water into the sink, a bowl or into an empty cup.” This allows the child to learn the concept of making choices and using self-control, rather than an adult attempting to control the child’s behavior.

Wouldn’t it be easier to have set rules? Perhaps, but play therapy allows children to experience being in control, respected and trusted. But does that mean that real world limits don’t enter in to the playroom? No. For example, not only will I set a limit if a child is purposely pouring water on the floor, but also if they are inadvertently spilling water. In order to become truly responsible and have self-control, one must first have self-awareness. By introducing an open-ended item which obviously will have to be limited in some ways, the play therapy parallels real life and children will experience limits. For some children, this might even mean experiencing consequences for disobeying a limit. Experiencing limits and consequences can be beneficial for some children when they experience that limit and consequence in a supportive and affirming manner.

Play therapy is based on the theory that play is like a child’s language, and the toys in the playroom are the words a child uses to express their inner experiences and how they perceive and experience the world. Within a play session, and over the course of sessions, themes emerge in the child’s play, giving me a sense of a child’s life experiences, and what they think, feel and have come to believe based on those experiences.

Throughout the session I make a point to display unconditional acceptance and positive regard for the child. I feel privileged to develop such insight into a child’s inner world. By creating a safe, yet free, space, the child can work through fears or past difficulties or hardships. Who knew a sink was so helpful? Me, your friendly neighborhood play therapist.

(By the way, for those of you still thinking I am slightly crazy, let me explain why children aren’t expected to clean up after a play therapy session. First, as a play therapist I recognize that children might be using the toys to represent their past pains, current reality, or their hoped-for-futures. Having to abruptly put away your inner reality, dreams or fears would be completely insensitive. The other reason, is to bring a real-life limit into every play therapy session, that of a time limit, therefore bridging the play therapy to reality.)

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