Most children prefer toys and games over chores or schoolwork, but playtime can actually be a vital form of self care for young ones, especially during trying times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, local mental health professionals say.
To help children cope with stress and struggles, many therapists use play therapy as a form of mental health counseling. Whereas an adult in therapy would traditionally discuss their feelings and struggles with a counselor, children in play therapy are encouraged to play with toys while a mental health professional observes the child’s behavior and emotions.
“A trained professional can recognize and meet (a child’s) needs through facilitating a healing experience of play,” El Campo Licensed Professional Counselor Stacy Schmermund-Romo said. “Play helps children relieve stress and anxiety naturally and provides opportunities for children to form bonds and connect with others.”
An increased number of Schmermund-Romo’s young clients are experiencing anxiety and depression, due to the ongoing pandemic, she told the Leader-News. She owns Turning Leaf Counseling & Education Center, 403 E. Hillje, which currently has four, out of nine total, employees trained in play therapy and rooms set up with puppets, toys and figurines for clients to use during sessions.
National play therapy week was celebrated this week, running from Sunday, Feb. 7 through today, Feb. 13. Created by the U.S. Association for Play Therapy, this week is intended to educate parents, teachers and communities about the importance of play in children’s mental health.
“There is more evidence now than ever that children need play in order to live healthy lives, and play therapy is improving children’s mental health and overall well-being all over the world,” according to a press release from APT.
Play therapy can look many different ways. Some clients like to dress up with costumes, play with dolls, paint on paper, among many various options. One common tool used during play therapy is a sand tray, in which the child places different figurines and scenery items like replica trees or buildings. The child can arrange the items and move the sand around in the tray to create an environment or tell a story.
Schmermund-Romo finds play therapy to be an effective method for helping children cope with stress, trauma and more.
“Toys in the playroom are the child’s words and play is their language,” Schmermund-Romo said. “They are able to communicate their needs and feelings with the use of puppets, dress up or even with the babies and (dolls) they use in play.”
In Edna, Sunshine Play Therapy and Counseling also offers play therapy services. Licensed Professional Counselor Marla Sample has not seen an increase in play therapy clients due to the pandemic, but continues to offer mental health services to her patients, typically in 45 minute sessions.
“In play therapy, we teach the child (and share this with parents) to first recognize the emotion and that it is okay to be angry,” Sample said. “It is how you express it that matters. So we give them a bop bag to hit, or popsicle sticks to break, or paper to tear.”
Play therapy can be helpful for some teens and adults, but it is primarily used to treat children ages 3 to 12, according to Psychology Today. Play therapy can help children with depression, anxiety, grief, academic problems, social struggles, learning disabilities, behavioral issues and more.
During a play therapy session, the therapist may sit quietly for periods of time, but they are still actively working. Occasional questions can help the therapist find out more about what the child is feeling or struggling to express explicitly.
“Just like an infant cries when he/she is hungry, (and) even as adults we all do things that demonstrate we need something; sighing when tired, tapping a pen or foot when frustrated, rolling eyes or slamming doors when angry,” Sample said. “We have to figure out what that child needs.”
Play therapy techniques can also be implemented at home, and encouraging regular play can help a child express themselves.
“Parents can use puppets, or anything that can represent a character, to help children express what they are feeling, motivate them to cooperate or to help them learn new concepts,” Schmermund-Romo said.
A tenet of play therapy is that the child should not feel judged or limited during the session. Therapists usually let the client decide what toys to use and how to use them, with few rules dictating the session. One rule that Sample sets for her sessions is that paint should only be used on paper, not on the toys.
“Parents and teachers too, being a former teacher myself, need to realize that behaviors are a way that children display a need that has not been met,” Sample said.
For more information on at-home play therapy techniques, visit APT’s website, a4pt.org.