What are the stages of Play Therapy?

Stage of Play Therapy

When I first heard of Play Therapy, I scratched my head and thought “Is this a real therapy?”. When I did a little more research, followed by intensive study and training, I came to realise that Play Therapy is a powerful, evidence-based, developmentally age-appropriate method of counselling young children. If you want to be taken on a beautiful journey following the true story of one boy’s experience in play therapy, I highly recommend the book “Dibs in Search of Self: Personality Development in Play Therapy ” by Virginia M. Axline (1986)

“Play Therapy is based on the fact that play is the child’s natural medium of self-expression. It is an opportunity that is given to the child to ‘play out’ his feelings and problems just as, in certain types of adult therapy, an individual ‘talks out’ his difficulties”. Virginia Axline (1989), founder of child-centred play therapy

Play Therapists have acquired particular skills to support children through play. Gary Landreth, an international leader in child-centred play therapy states that “play is the child’s language and the toys are their words”. With this in mind, children can address, process and heal from their emotional, relational and social challenges through toys, games, craft and sand-tray.

So, what is your child likely to be going through in a therapeutic playroom? Your play therapist will begin with an initial consultation with the caregiver only. This is an opportunity to discuss concerns, presenting symptoms, child and family history, set goals and make a therapeutic plan. It takes an average of 20 sessions for most children to reach their therapeutic goals (Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002).

So what are the stages of Play Therapy?

BRT Stages of Play Therapy Graph

Exploration Phase

In the first appointment of play therapy, the therapist will explain to the child what they can expect in the sessions. The main objective of the first 4-6 weeks is to build trust and rapport with the child and to offer a safe therapeutic space for healing. The child will explore the room, get familiar with the toys and develop a relationship with the therapist. The therapist will encourage and empower the child to direct the play and take risks in the playroom. Limitations are not usually necessary unless the therapist has to set a limit to avoid injury to themselves, the child or damage to the property.

Some children may settle in well as they walk into a room full of toys. Other children may take a little while to warm up to the therapist and their new surroundings. There may be occasions where a caregiver may need to stay for a part of the session to help ease their child into the session. Eg. This is common for those children who have experienced separation anxiety with their family members. Your therapist will follow your child’s lead, respect their needs and go at their pace.

Towards the end of this phase, the child will begin to look forward to therapy and will have an understanding of the play therapy process. The child would have found a sense of security with the therapist and demonstrated an ability to express themselves. This is when they will be comfortable to move into the next stage.

Resistance Phase

Once the child has reached a level of comfort in the playroom, they ultimately reach a stage where they can choose to confront the issues causing the maladaptive behaviours. When children go through this stage, children will begin to act out emotionally or behaviourally, either at home or in the playroom. This may last a brief time only or extend over a few months. Children may refuse to come to therapy, make more mistakes, have emotional outbursts and may demonstrate some regressive behaviours (Eg. Bedwetting). We request that parents encourage their children to continue to attend therapy and respect their child’s need for personal growth.

Growth Stage

This is the longest part of the play therapy process. Your child is fully engaged in the play therapy process and is prepared to show up weekly to work on their struggles. This stage is filled with learning, healing and personal growth. This is when the therapist and caregivers are likely to see improvements in behaviour, emotional regulation, confidence, self-esteem, communication and interactions with others. This is when you will see some of the behavioural issues start to reduce or disappear. This is because the child is building new neural pathways in the brain and establishing new behavioural patterns. The child may make the occasional mistake, but it is important to validate their feelings and show empathy and understanding and remind them of the new skills they have acquired.

Termination Phase

The last stage is where children have been able to consistently demonstrate new skills with ease in and out of the playroom. Emotional and behavioural issues would have dramatically reduced in all of their environments. This stage is important to prepare the child for a healthy goodbye and they can continue to thrive without the therapist. The child and the therapist can reflect on their time spent together and can use the last session to highlight the growth and progress made. 

Generally, children may make the occasional mistake or regressive behaviour after play therapy. However, overall children can adapt well to new changes after play therapy as they have been able to identify their strengths and use their inner resources. If you are concerned with any behaviours following play therapy, reach out to your therapist to discuss any new challenges.

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