Play is a child’s inbuilt form of therapy. Dramatic play in particular, or the process of acting out different roles and scenarios through play (pretending to be police, playing house or school, etc.) is especially therapeutic. It helps them work through their emotions and gain empathy and perspective by placing themselves in another role or situation. It also allows children to experiment with different thoughts, ideas, and actions in a safe setting that they can control. Therefore play therapy can be a great way for children to relieve tensions, and it can also allow adults to get a glimpse into what issues the kids might be struggling with.
Why play is so helpful to children
Play is beneficial to children on a number of levels:
Play can reduce stress and anxiety in children
A 1984 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry illustrates the calming effect that play has on children. Researchers assessed the anxiety levels of 74 three- and four-year-olds on their first day of preschool, which was based on behavior (whether they pleaded, whined and begged their parents to stay) as well as measurements of how much their palms were sweating. Each child was then labeled as either anxious or not anxious based on this criteria.
The kids were then randomly split into four groups. Half of the kids were escorted into rooms full of toys where they could either play alone or with peers for 15 minutes. The other half were instructed to sit at a table to listen to a teacher tell a story for 15 minutes, again either alone or with peers. Afterwards, distress levels were assessed again. The results showed that anxiety levels in those who played had dropped by more than twice as much compared to the anxious kids who had listened to the story. (Wenner, 2009)
Play promotes mental health
Studies have shown that children who are deprived of free play show signs of increased aggression, depression, repressed emotions, and underdeveloped social skills.
Play helps children express their emotions Literature on play therapy indicates that children are very likely to project their own feelings and anxieties onto toy figures (particularly animals) and to identify with those feelings. It also helps them to regulate those emotions while caring for the toy figures. (Knell, 1998; Axline, 1969; Bratton et al., 2005)
Play allows children to express taboo feelings
Play also allows children to project their own fears and anxieties onto play figures, which allows them to address such feelings without being labeled as babyish or immature. By ascribing their emotions onto the toy or an imaginary character, they can express inner feelings without ridicule, judgment, or the risk of being branded too sensitive.
Play promotes social intelligence
Through play, children place themselves into other roles and positions, acting out the world through different characters. This builds empathy and social intelligence, allowing kids to better understand the actions and behavior of others. Since social and emotional intelligence is an important coping skill, this ultimately helps children better handle adversity.
You can find instructions for specific play therapy exercises in our eBook: Child Trauma & Recovery. It’s just $9.99 and all proceeds from your purchase go to help kids in need. (Coming Soon!)