Dr. Judith D. Bertoia, Registered Psychologist, Registered Play Therapist - Supervisor

Play Therapy

Play therapy, developed in the last century, refers to various treatment methods having the therapeutic benefits of play. Play is a natural language for children and provides a non-threatening way for them to express themselves. Although talking is also an element of play therapy, our focus is on the child's activities. A child's logical, verbal skills are not as developed as the abstract cognitive capacity of an adult, yet through their play they enact whatever challenges they are facing.

Play therapy is different from regular play because a trained therapist helps children to address and resolve their own problems. Virginia Axline, an early play therapist and author in the field, notes that play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them. Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, to express their feelings, to modify their behavior, to develop new problem-solving skills, and to learn a variety of ways of relating to others. Play provides children with a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows the expression of thoughts and behaviors in a protected setting, using a wide range of materials.

Enter into children's play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet.
— Virginia Axline

Usually the children who come for play therapy are struggling with trauma or issues that have overwhelmed their current coping strategies. Sometimes their behavior has changed significantly, and is of concern to family or educators. Other times the adults in a child's life are aware of major changes in the child's environment, such as a divorce or death, and have noticed either emotional or behavioral differences that may be less dramatic, but they wish to provide skilled professional help before the child is completely overwhelmed. The new behaviors or emotional patterns act as a signal or symptom that something is troubling the child.

Specialists in play therapy assess and understand children's play, help them cope with challenges and difficult emotional experiences and, through play, help children change the way they feel, think, and act in the situation.

In my work as a play therapist, I usually meet first with the parents without the child present. This allows us to discuss the presenting issue, to clarify the child's history and the full context of the child's life, and to define the desired outcome for therapy. Parents have the opportunity to share information and ask questions without being cautious about details in the child's presence — or boring the child with talking time.

Play therapy sessions are usually held weekly and the play component is 45 minutes long. In this time, along with play, I may use other methods to help children understand, express, and manage their feelings in more appropriate ways. An additional fifteen minute "snack time" follows the child's time where the child is re-oriented to the day-to-day world of rules and expectation outside the therapy room. Parents are part of this time and we may rehearse a new skill for practice with parents, share an insight or particular element of the play, or briefly discuss an outside incident from the parents' perspective.

An important aspect of therapy with children is confidentiality because it allows children to express themselves freely — without concern about parents' feelings or reactions. Therefore, I do not share the details of our sessional content. I do schedule parent meetings at regular intervals to summarize progress, share general themes in the play, discuss my conclusions about their work, and explore possible ways parent-child interactions can be enhanced. At times we may combine elements of family therapy with the play therapy.

The practice of play therapy requires extensive specialized education, training, supervision and experience beyond the training and registration process as a mental health professional. With this advanced training mental health professionals may also earn the Registered Play Therapist (RPT) or Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT-S) credential such as that offered by the Association for Play Therapy. A play therapist has a Masters or Doctorate degree in a mental health field as well as the additional training specific to play therapy and working with children. A key element of this training is developing the skills to understand how the symbolic language of play relates to the child's inner world and external reality.

Further information about play therapy can be found at the Association of Play Therapy.

The answers lie within. The challenge is listening to their wisdom and then creating change.

Through the manipulation of toys, the child can show more adequately than through words how he feels about himself and the significant persons and events in his life.
— Haim Ginott

Symbolic play helps in the resolution of conflicts and also in the compensation of unsatisfied needs.
— Jean Piaget