Play That Heals: Play Therapy and COVID-19

Play Therapy Techniques

We sense that play is important but can play be therapy?  Can play heal? And, right now, as many of us are working from home, please tell us, how can we get our kids to play on their own?

FamilyApp recently talked with Ruthie Weiglein, a Licensed Family Therapist, and Founder of Take Care Club. Here is some of her wisdom as we navigate these uncertain days with our children.

play therapy
Ruthie Weiglein

Play That Heals: Play Therapy and COVID-19

For the first time in some children’s lives, due to stay at home orders, their schedules have slowed down enough to give time for them to be bored and play.

That space is giving kids of any age, the time to process things. Often our schedules are too full and they don’t have time for free play.

In therapy, when a child is demonstrating angry or depressed behavior, or anxiety, one of the first questions I ask the parent is for them to describe the child’s schedule. Often the schedule allows little time for play and this can result in all sorts of behavioral challenges.

Pressure Off Parents Around Play

Yes, the parent-child relationship can benefit so much by connecting through play. You sitting with them and playing with them is important because they need your attention and need to feel in control of your time for a few minutes. But this is intentional, limited time.  Don’t feel the pressure to entertain your child.

There are many great resources online with activities for children. But if right now, due to your work demands, you need them to play independently, they are capable of this, regardless of age. Give them the time and space to be bored and figure things out.  This is an important skill.

Follow the Boredom to Play

Now, if they keep asking for help, they may need your attention. Certain behavior can be a signal to fill them up with your attention first, and then return responsibility to them.

In our culture, the adult feels pressure to keep the child occupied. But what children need, at any age, is the skill of tolerating boredom. We need to trust their ability to problem-solve. Even if the problem is their own boredom.

Creating Spaces for Play

Make sure there are certain child-centered spaces in your house. Now, listen, EVERY space does not have to be child-friendly. This is a great way to teach boundaries. But have spaces with toys and art supplies that they are free to use independently.

If something is stressful to you as a parent – glue, play-doh, markers, keep those items out of the reach of young children. Glitter in the hands of preschool children gives you severe anxiety? Then don’t make it an option. This is not about a free-for-all, it’s about creating opportunities for play.

Also, the less stuff around allows for more focus on play. Too many options can be an obstacle. Putting toys away for time periods and rotating what is out and available helps a lot.

play therapy heals

Play Therapy vs. Play

Child-centered play therapy uses what comes naturally to a child – play – to help a child process in a therapeutic setting.

A word of caution: often adults will see a child processing a feeling or trauma through play and consider it play therapy. While this play is therapeutic it is not the same as a play therapy session.

Role of the Therapist in Play Therapy

Play therapy hinges on the relationship between the child and the therapist. The Play therapist is a mental health professional who has extensive training to get on the child’s level and help them express themselves through non-directive therapeutic play.

I cannot emphasize enough that the relationship with the therapist is the most powerful vehicle for an emotional change.

Recently, the “sitting on the floor together” part of my play therapy sessions was removed and replaced instead with conducting sessions over video telehealth.  I doubted how effective it could be to comfort and support children during this pandemic.

But while the presence of toys in my playroom was gone, the relationship between child and therapist remains. We find ways to playfully connect over video sessions and it’s possible because the foundation built through time, trust, and play remain.

Learning From Play

Play is fascinating because, along with its therapeutic powers for the child, it shows what a child is stuck on, whether a trauma, or feeling, or anxiety.

A play theme is what the play therapist calls something that young children repeat in play. Play themes demonstrate what a child is processing, such as using the same toy or playing the same scene over and over.

Play Gets Personal

I  have watched the power of play and relationships unfold in my own house.  My son was only 2 when he accidentally poured a scalding soup on himself, severely burning much of his torso.

After a scary night and long ER visit, the next morning he began playing out what had happened.  I was startled and a bit traumatized myself to watch him reenact what had happened, especially since he was so young and had only recently begun pretend play.

Over and over he busied himself at his toy kitchen. He made his “soup” in a pot and then would ask me to dump it on him.  Sometimes he would dump it on me.

We would then play going to the hospital and lying very still on the bed, clutching our tummies.  Truthfully,  this play went on in a very similar way every day for nearly a whole year.

Problem Solving and Play

As his mom, I supported him, giving him the space to continue to process what was clearly a huge event.  But as his mom, I was too close to the situation to notice what I would’ve seen if I was operating as a therapist– he was stuck.

His play was not changing, it was the same.  A whole year of making the soup, dumping the soup, going to the hospital, making the soup, dumping the soup, going to the hospital.

Right after the accident, my other older son had told me the burn wouldn’t have happened if I had put ice cubes in the soup like their grandmother always does.  Remembering that he had said this to me, the next time the soup pot started cooking in the toy kitchen, I asked if maybe it was too hot and needed some ice cubes.

“Yes, yes!” my toddler nodded, excited as I handed him a cup of ice.  He poured the ice cubes into the pot, dumped the pot onto himself, and then never played The Soup Burn again.  He had solved his problem.

Processing Through Play Therapy to Healing

It can be scary for a parent to see a play theme. It can trigger all sorts of emotion in us to watch our kids coping as they process hard things, maybe even things we had wanted to protect them from. So be aware of your own responses. Do not stop it because it makes you uncomfortable.

But this is where play therapy can hold such a significant role. Play therapy provides a setting for them to do this processing with a trained therapist who will gently move them towards problem-solving using play therapy techniques in an age-appropriate way.

And as the therapist helps the child, they also help the parent understand and confront their own uncomfortable feelings.

play therapy
coronavirus coping play therapy covid-19

Play Therapy and Support During COVID-19

Behavior issues in children show unresolved feelings. If you feel like you are constantly coming up against behavior that seems unmanageable during this unpredictable season, therapy could very well be the support you need.

Every day, in my therapy sessions, I witness people of all ages process and grow. I experience firsthand how the support of a trained therapist can help people of any age move towards healing. And what I witness to gives me so much hope for the change that is possible, even during these times.

play therapy during COVID-19

Join the Club

Take Care Club is Ruthie’s digital platform providing online resources for mental health wellness. You can connect with Take Care Club, and book a therapy session online today. Follow the Club and Ruthie’s work on Facebook and Instagram @TakeCareClub.

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