Why Do We Play in Therapy?
You may be wondering why do we play as part of a child’s therapy? Is play therapy right for my child? The best way to begin to understand why play is helpful for children is to understand how a child’s brain functions.
All brains have two halves, the left side and the right side. The left side is the logical side that focuses on numbers, words, math equations, linear thinking, and facts. The right side of the brain is the nonverbal creative side which consists of emotions, imagination, intuition, images, rhythm, and art. The left side of the brain takes more time to grow and expand its abilities. That is why infants do not start out speaking in long complex sentences and doing math equations. Instead you see young children displaying lots of emotions as well as using their imaginations as they interact with the world around them. The right side of the brain is very closely linked to the autonomic nervous system which helps control and regulate unconscious body functions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion. The autonomic nervous system also controls a person’s fight, flight, or freeze response when in stressful or dangerous situations. Additionally, trauma is stored in the right side of the brain. Since trauma is stored in the part of the brain that primarily focuses on emotions and images, people that have experienced trauma often have difficulty talking about their experiences. They literally do not have the words to describe the experience.
Children are especially impacted by trauma at a young age because their left side of the brain is already not at full functioning capacity. The younger the child when the trauma happens, the more likely the trauma story is trapped in the right side of the brain. In order to effectively process the trauma, we must have a way to access the right side of the brain. Therefore, we need to utilize aspects of the right brain such as imagination, art, images, rhythm, creativity, and emotions. Essentially all the components of a child playing.
By utilizing play as a way to reach inside of the right side of the brain where the trauma is stored, we are able to unlock the trauma story. Because trauma usually doesn’t have words, it can come out all sideways, nonlinear, full of emotion, and displaying bodily distress. Within the context of play, children are able to fully express all of their experiences in exactly the way the child needs. Play is the child’s way of telling their story. The toys and the way in which they play with the toys are the child’s words. By playing, children are able to access their trauma, express their experiences, and heal during the process.
Play therapy thus becomes “right” for all children to process the stress and traumatic memories that live in the right side of their brains because it allows children to tell their stories using the best way that children know how to communicate.
~ Tasha Lehner MA