“Play is the language of children.” This is a common phrase uttered amongst Play Therapy practitioners and proponents, but what does it truly mean? Children do not contain the same level of cognitive, emotional, and psychological sophistication that adults display, and their form of expression is different from the way that adults express their feelings and thoughts. Play permits children to “express their concerns, their fears, their desires, and to communicate with their environment” (Koukourikos et al., 2021).
Through Play therapy, children are given a means of expression where “toys are like the child’s words, through which the child is encouraged to explore his feelings, to understand and accept them and to process them using his innate imagination and the characteristics for his age creativity” (Koukourikos et al., 2021). In early childhood, a child’s developing cognitive, psychological, emotional, and behavioral processes interact with the various forms of play in Play therapy, leading to healthy child development and growth.
In this article, we will first be discussing the various forms of play that contribute to emotional and psychological well-being. Along with this, we will confer about the primary techniques used in Play Therapy to maximize the impact of each form of play within early childhood. After this, we will see how Play Therapy can be impactful for each age range within early childhood.
Types of Play
Sensorimotor Play or Sensory Play
Sensorimotor Play is most significant during infancy, from birth to about 2 years old. Sensorimotor play is the key aspect of the Sensorimotor stage, the first stage in Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development. It is characterized by learning, exploring, and understanding the world around us through the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Along with this, this stage is known to flex and develop the infant’s gross motor skills, which take part in motor movements that involve large muscles. Gross motor movements include crawling, walking, running, kicking, and more movements that define the infancy years. This type of play is a part of functional play, which is defined by repetitive behaviors enacted by the child.
Children employ sensory play to “learn about their world through trial and error” (Ansorge, 2023). Through the actions of putting objects in their mouth, touching and throwing different toys, along with crawling and walking, infants learn to adapt and explore their environment through sensory stimulation.
Constructive play is defined by the preschool years, more specifically around the age of 3 years old. Constructive play is the most prominent during the Preoperational stage, the second stage of Piaget’s cognitive development stages, and it can be the most noticeable when the child moves from observing objects to making meaning out of them. In constructive play, the child utilizes their imagination, creativity, and gross and fine motor skills to “develop their conceptual knowledge by posing questions, testing ideas, and gathering information” (My Teaching Cupboard, n.d). Through constructive play, children further develop their perception of the world around them through building or constructing something with different objects and materials. A prominent example of constructive play includes using objects to build a tower. A child might use legos, blocks, or other materials to make this tower, and assigning a meaning to this tower constitutes as imaginative or dramatic play. Viewing a tower as a castle or building enhances the child’s ability to see the world in creative and imaginative ways.
Parallel play is the most common during the ages of 2 to 3 years, otherwise known as Toddlerhood. Parallel play is defined as children simply playing individually without explicitly interacting with each other. Even while the children do not interact with each other, Parallel play is incredibly impactful in developing observation skills, imitation skills, and modeling skills. Parallel play prepares the child for the next step of socialization (social play) by indirectly interacting with peers and learning from and with them. This type of play “encourages children to develop their own interests and allows them to explore their surroundings without feeling pressured to interact with others” (The Power of Parallel Play for Young Children/NHCS, n.d). Through Parallel play, children understand how to communicate verbally and nonverbally with their peers while also maintaining their independence. Children can observe their peers, imitate their actions and behaviors, and perhaps model behaviors for their peers as well. All of these aspects aid in developing social awareness, creativity, and self-regulation.
Social play is the most commonplace during the years of early childhood, when children are being exposed to one of the most influential settings on child development; school. As children interact with their peers, they eventually come to engage in social play. Social play takes form when children engage with each other in the process of play. Social play aids in the process of socialization by improving the child’s communication skills, problem-solving skills, and conflict-resolution skills. As the child plays with their peers, they can hone the skills they need when they interact with adults in higher education, work, and even just day-to-day relationships. The communication skills they learn through social play add to the child’s self-regulation and emotional regulation skills. It allows them to understand the viewpoints of their peers, and assimilate and accommodate new information through their perspectives.
Cooperative Play is enacted with a combination of all the play skills children have learned so far, from sensory play to constructive play, parallel play, and social play. Cooperative Play can be described as the “stage where children play in a group that is organized to make some material product, striving to attain some competitive goal, dramatizing situations of adult and group life, or playing formal games” (Cooperative Play/Play Encyclopedia, n.d). Cooperative play involves children making meaning from their actions and assigning abstract concepts like symbolism to the process of their play. Social skills, emotional regulation skills, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skills come together to make cooperative play essential for growth and development. Another key aspect of cooperative play is the ability of children to develop empathy and genuineness toward their peers. Through collaboration amongst a group of peers, children learn to literally and metaphorically speak the language of each of these peers and engage in the flexibility of thinking. With this, children can take on different perspectives and generate empathy.
Techniques Used in Play Therapy
Emotional Regulation Through Play
Play Therapy has been shown to have numerous positive effects on children’s emotional regulation and healthy expression of emotions and feelings. Emotional regulation can be defined as “our ability to have control over our emotional state, which includes the ability to assess a situation that may instigate anger, anxiety, sadness, fear, or other emotions” (M, 2022). Through free play, children can relax and slow down, allowing them to deal with the emotions that are brought up healthily in a nurturing environment. With the use of different types of play items and toys, children can express themselves in a unique way of their own. This may be a way that includes verbal expression, nonverbal expression, physical movement, and more. The freedom behind play allows a child to “express his concern, anxieties and the various difficulties that he faces in everyday life” (Koukourikos et al., 2021).
The play therapy tool of tracking or narrating is one of the backbones of play therapy, a tool that aids in encouraging emotional regulation, development of creativity, and understanding of the complexity behind the client. A form of storytelling can be conceptualized as narrating the actions of the child as they play, essentially observing their behaviors and verbalizing their process of play. This tool is significant as it tells the child “that they are seen and they have the therapist’s full attention” (Mouer et al., 2020). This process aids in creating a genuine and warm therapeutic relationship between the counselor and the child, which is vital for progress, especially when working with someone so young. The lack of direct interference in the child’s play process gives the child the freedom to explore what they want without feeling stifled or directed. The tracking process overall builds trust between the counselor and client and aids in building a rapport that will benefit the client.
Reflecting Content and Feelings
The concept of “reflection” can be considered one of the key techniques used in all forms of counseling, in which the therapist paraphrases the feelings or content behind the client’s statements. Reflecting on the content and feelings of the child validates what the child is going through, which conveys genuineness, empathy, and acceptance from the side of the counselor. The act of reflection allows the child to feel seen, heard, and understood. The restating of what a child feels and is experiencing allows the client to see how their emotions can be labeled, and through this, they learn how to express their emotions more healthily.
Benefits of Play Therapy at Different Ages
Infancy and Toddlerhood
During infancy and toddlerhood, the most important person or people in the child’s life is the caregiver or caregivers. Because the caregiver is responsible for meeting the infant’s physical and emotional needs, during this process the child and the caregiver build trust. Many play therapy techniques utilized during this period center around solidifying the trust between the child and caregiver and further encouraging a bond in the future. The formation of this trust promotes healthy emotional and psychological development within the infant, as well as developing early emotional regulation skills through sensory play.
Preschool and Early Childhood
The preschool and early childhood phase is defined by burgeoning autonomy, in which children learn to foster physical and emotional independence. According to Erikson’s stages of cognitive development, early childhood is characterized by initiative taking and independence during the stages of autonomy vs. shame and guilt, and initiative vs. guilt. With the use of techniques like tracking and storytelling, children during this age are given the space to develop independence while still receiving encouragement for verbal and nonverbal expression. These techniques foster healthy language development and improve cognitive functions like decision-making and problem-solving through constructive play.
School Age Children
When children first enter school, they are exposed to a completely new environment that cannot be substituted by anything else. In school, children learn to socially interact, pick up social cues, and generate significant friendships with their peers. Children slowly form their sense of identity around their interactions with peers, and their growing desire to achieve and accomplish leads to increases and decreases in self-esteem. Through play therapy techniques, particularly reflecting content and feelings, children will be able to build self-confidence by having their feelings validated and heard. Through play, they will be able to better articulate their emotions and develop strength through their vulnerability.
From the conception of Piaget’s cognitive development theory to the extensive practice of Play therapy today, the role of play has come a long way throughout the years. With the emergence of social media platforms and increased use of technology, it is especially important to emphasize the significance of physical play, as this is a key part of healthy child development, particularly in early childhood. Through the Play therapy techniques discussed, every child at every age range can learn and grow in terms of emotional regulation, creativity and imagination, expression of thoughts and feelings, problem-solving skills, and social skills.
Play therapy is not only useful for the child but for the caregivers or parents as well. Through play therapy in infancy and toddlerhood, there is potential for a stronger and closer attachment to be built between the caregiver and child. During the preschool years and early childhood, child-parent interactions also have scope to be improved through the child’s improving feelings of self-esteem and independence. School-age children’s growing social skills and self-confidence can additionally lead to more positive child-parent interactions.
Play therapy is available at the Dallas, Plano, and Austin locations of Heritage Counseling and Consulting. Please call Heritage Counseling and Consulting at 214-363-2345 for more information.
Ansorge, R. (2023, March 12). Piaget stages of development. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/children/piaget-stages-of-development
Koukourikos, K., Tsaloglidou, A., Tzeha, L., Iliadis, C., Frantzana, A., Katsimbeli, A., & Kourkouta, L. (2021). An Overview of Play Therapy. Materia Socio Medica, 33(4), 293. https://doi.org/10.5455/msm.2021.33.293-297
My Teaching Cupboard. (n.d.). Developmental Stages of Play - Piaget. My Teaching Cupboard. https://www.myteachingcupboard.com/blog/developmental-stages-of-play-piaget
The Power of Parallel Play for Young Children | NCHS. (n.d.). Blog.nchs.org. https://blog.nchs.org/discover-parallel-play-for-children
Cooperative Play | Play Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Www.pgpedia.com. https://www.pgpedia.com/c/cooperative-play
M, C. (2022, April 12). EMOTIONAL REGULATION. Therapyatplay. https://www.therapyatplay.com/emotional-regulation/
Mouer, M., MS, LCMHCS, CSAT, & certified, E. (2020, April 29). Play Therapy 101: Therapist/Child Interactions in Play Therapy. The Center for Family Transformation. https://www.familytransformation.com/2020/04/28/play-therapy-101-therapist-child-interactions-in-play-therapy/