Tips for What to Say and Do When Joining Your Child in the Play Therapy Room Entering into the play therapy room is a unique experience where we immerse ourselves in the child’s world. While the task may appear simple – play; many adults struggle to fit into this child directed space. The play that takes place during therapy is special and often different than the play parents are accustomed to seeing. As a result, families benefit when parents are willing to engage in this unique type of play experience with their children. At Heart to Heart, therapists utilize a non-directive experiential play therapy model. To maximize the play therapy experience when using this model, here are a few tips for parents and caregivers when joining children in the play therapy room. Setting the stage for child-led play: Imagine you have been cast in a movie. Your child is the director and you are the actor. There is a twist; you do not have a script. Only your child has the script, and as the director, your child has chosen to only tell you about each scene as it is being performed. It sounds like a challenging mystery of fun and adventure – you decide you are up for the task and eagerly join.
- Re-learn how to stay engaged with play. Enter the play therapy room with the mindset that you are there to experience your child’s world (we give this the basic name of play). Yes, it is therapy and hard work, but ultimately as a parent in the playroom, your task is to stay engaged with your child. Staying actively involved allows you to learn about your child’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and life experiences. Allow yourself to abandon your formal adult behaviors and let loose to fully engage in the adventures of playing.
- Let your child lead. In everyday life, you as the parent are usually in charge. However, in the playroom, your child gets to be the director. In the playroom, it is your role as the parent to follow your child’s lead. With your child as the leader, you will better understand your child’s world. Convey you are following your child’s lead with your words and your actions. For example: Your child tells you to stand in the corner. Words to say: “you want me to stand in the corner” (yes, you can literally repeat the action they told you, it shows you were listening). Action: go stand in the corner as instructed. Avoid: Don’t ask questions about why you are supposed to stand in the corner and don’t do anything besides stand in the corner until you receive your next set of instructions from the child.
- Join your child in the play. By actively participating in child-led play, you communicate to your children that you see them, hear them, and care about them. As your child continues to give you directions as to what to play and how to play it, enthusiastically take on the roles given to you. The play is important to your child; by making the play important to you, you communicate value to your child. Show you are willing to join in the play with your words and your actions. For example: After you reflected with words and actions to your child about standing in the corner, your child says, “yes, you are the robber and are stuck in jail until I come free you.” Now you have another clue as to the role you are playing. Words to say: “I’m the robber and I’m locked in jail until you let me out.” To really play your part, say the words with emotion as if you really are the robber locked in jail. Actions: stay in jail until your child directs you otherwise. Avoid: Don’t ask why you are in jail and don’t break out of jail unless your child instructs you to do so. Next, your child says, “you can try to break out robber but you’ll never be able to because I have the keys, ha ha ha ha.” Words to say: “you think it is funny that I am stuck in here and can’t get out.” Actions: (because your child gave you this instruction) act out that you are trying to break free, but that you are really stuck and there is no way out. Words to say (as you stay stuck), “I’m trying to break out but I can’t do it. Ahh, I’m really stuck in here.”
- Verbally state what your child is doing. For example: Your child responds to your portrayal of the robber locked in jail by putting handcuffs on you and saying, “you’ll never get free, you can’t hurt anyone anymore.” Words to say: “You are putting handcuffs on me to make sure I never hurt anyone again.”
- Reflect your child’s feelings. For example: After putting the handcuffs on, your child enthusiastically jumps in the air and shouts “I did it, I locked up the robber.” Words to say: “you are really proud of yourself for keeping me locked up in here.” Actions: look like a defeated robber that realizes the battle was lost.
- Encourage your child’s power and self-worth. For example: Your child continues to do a victory dance after locking up the robber. Words to say: “you worked really hard to defeat me and you did it.”
- Wait for your child to define toys and roles during play. For example: After completing a few victory dances, your child returns to you in jail and says, “Where did you hide the treasure?” While it may be tempting to answer the question, instead, give an evasive answer. This allows the child to continue leading the direction of the play. Words to say: “hmm, the treasure…” Child replies, “yeah the treasure, did you hide it in the sand?” Words to say: “you are wondering if I hid the treasure in the sand.” Child responds with “I think the sand is a decoy. I know where you hid it.” Child runs over to a toy lunch box and exclaims, “I found the treasure! You aren’t tricky for me anymore.” Words to say: “I’m not tricky for you anymore, you found the treasure.” Avoid: As odd as it may feel, refrain from directly answering your child’s questions and making decisions during the play to allow your child to continue creating the storyline.
Remember that learning to play and experience your child’s world in the playroom is very similar to learning a new language. It feels awkward in the beginning. It takes time and practice. The more effort you put in, the greater rewards you will see in your relationship with your children and your ability to understand their world. Prompts for Common Situations in the Play Therapy Room: Words to say: “I wonder…” “Hmmm…” “You want me to _____.” “You figured it out.” “You worked really hard on that.” “You get to decide.” “You know just how you want that to be.” “There are so many choices.” “You feel _____ about that.” Actions: - Get on your child’s level. - If your child directs you to do something: do it (as long as it is physically safe to do so). - Act out the role you are given and stay in character until it is clear your child has either changed or ended your designated role. - Try to have your affect and body language reflect the level of engagement displayed by your child. - Play with toys how your child tells you to play with them rather than how you think the toys should be played with. Example: A garbage truck can be used as an airplane (even if there is an actual airplane visible in the playroom that could be used instead). - Specific example – Your child asks you to open something: Struggle to open the item and comment on how hard it is to open. Avoid opening the item unless it becomes very apparent your child wants or needs you to physically open it. - Specific example - Hide and seek: Struggle to find your child during hide and seek. Make a big show out of looking for your child everywhere and wait until it is clear your child is ready to be found. ~Tasha Lehner M.A. Reference: Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. New York, NY: Routledge.