The play therapy room at Heart to Heart is a unique space designed to engage children
in their primary language – play. Heart to Heart utilizes a non-directive play therapy approach
which means that the therapist does not choose what the child will play in therapy, instead the
child directs the play according to what the child needs to express during the therapeutic
process. In the play therapy room, the “rules” of the outside normal day life do not apply.
When adults enter the play therapy room with a child, they are entering into the child’s world.
Therapy for children is most effective when parents joining children in the play therapy room
are willing to immerse themselves in the unique forms of communication and interactions that
are utilized at Heart to Heart in play therapy. It can often be challenging for parents as they
learn to speak their child’s language of play because it is different than the ways in which they
typically interact. As with learning any new language, it takes time and practice. At Heart to
Heart, we believe that parents willing to put in the hard work of learning the language of play
will see huge benefits in not only their child’s success in therapy but also in the enriched bond
that will develop between parents and their children. At Heart to Heart, we want to equip
parents with the tools and skills that will enhance the play therapy experience for everyone in
the family. As a result, here are some important things for parents to know about their time in
the playroom and how their participation can enhance their child’s therapy process.
First, the play therapy room is a place to experience the child’s story. The toys are a
child’s tools for communication. Each toy and the manner in which it is played with is the
equivalent of the words and sentences adults use to talk. Even though children can use words
to talk, their brains are wired to express themselves more effectively through nonverbal forms
of communication. As a result, the child is the leader when in the play therapy room.
Therapists and parents are in the therapy space to see, hear, feel, and experience the child’s
story of events and challenges. In order for children to effectively be able to express their
experiences, children must be given the space and the respect to lead. This also means that the
focus of the time in the play therapy room is to be directed by the child. Consequently, it is
necessary for parents to eliminate side conversations with the therapist so they do not distract
from the importance of the child’s voice in the playroom. Additionally, it is important for
parents to stay present in the moment. This includes refraining from talking about what has
happened during the day or week while in the play therapy room. If the parent and therapist
are having side conversations, it not only can be distracting for the child, but it removes the
power of the child’s voice (expressed through play). It is the child’s story that needs to be
heard from the perspective of the child to truly know how the child is feeling.
Second, the play therapy room is designed to facilitate play in a unique way that allows
for children to express themselves and experience healing. In order to learn what the child
wants to express during therapy, it is important for parents to avoid commenting about
personal feelings towards toys either due to nostalgia or preference to utilize or avoid a specific
toy. In addition, children may use toys in a non-traditional manner of play. As long as it is safe,
there is no wrong way to play toys in the playroom. For example, a child may choose to utilize
a hat as a bowl even when a “real” bowl is visible. This is totally acceptable and encouraged in
the play therapy room. It is very important that parents do not try to “correct” a child’s play. It
is also best to save teaching concepts like counting, naming colors, etc. to outside of therapy
because it distracts from the important therapeutic work that needs to be done during
counseling sessions. If toys are the equivalent of words, think of how it would feel for an adult
to go into a therapy session and say something like “my boss has ridiculous expectations of me
and I am so frustrated that I want to quit my job.” Next, ponder what it would feel like if the
therapist interrupted the adult to say, “can you tell me the definition of ridiculous” or “you
used a mean tone of voice when you said that, how about saying it nicer” or “I remember a
time when I wanted to quit my job (and then gives a full personal account of their own
experience).” Doesn’t sound like a very productive or effective counseling session or therapist
if those are the types of responses given to the adult trying to express their challenges and
feelings, does it? The same is true for children when their play is interrupted or changed.
Third, play in the play therapy room is different than “regular” play. As a result, parents
will find themselves engaging in new types of interactions in the play therapy room. For
example, let’s say a parent and child are playing farm at home. While playing at home, the
parent may choose to have the cow eat some grass and then go into the barn and suggest that
the child use the horse and eat some apples. In the play therapy room, the child will designate
the role that the parent is to play. If the child says the parent is to play with the pig and says
the pig is a pirate that is stealing the farm’s food, then the parent is to unquestionably take on
the role of the pirate pig on a quest to acquire all the food until the child says otherwise. Think
of it as acting and the child is the director; parents – give your child an Oscar winning
performance. Additionally, “traditional” games are often played differently in the playroom.
For example, when playing Hide and Seek in the playroom, parents and therapists should go to
great lengths not to find the child right away. Instead, they should look in every possible place
in the room and make it a drawn-out search until the child gives an indication that it is time to
be found. Similarly, if a child is struggling to open a box in the playroom and asks for help,
instead of easily opening the box right away, parents should pretend to struggle with the box
and say how hard it is to open (even if it is very easy to open). If it seems daunting to try to
figure out how things should be done in the playroom, don’t worry, the therapist will help every
step of the way. So, if you are a parent in the playroom and are unsure of what to do, just
follow the roles your child gives you and watch the therapist modeling how to interact.
Finally, play therapy is a healing space for children. As a result, attending therapy
should not be used as a punishment or reward for behavior outside of therapy. Children
benefit from knowing they will consistently have a place to process emotions and heal.
Interestingly, at Heart to Heart we provide children with snacks and consider this activity to be
part of the therapy process. Eating a snack in the context of therapy actually provides several
benefits to children and their counseling journey. For example, a small snack can help activate
certain areas of the brain that are crucial in rewiring behaviors and removing their link to
trauma. Consequently, it is important that parents do not view the snack Heart to Heart
provides as a way to reward or punish at home behavior. While a snack during counseling may
outwardly seem trivial, it actually has therapeutic properties and therefore has specifically been
included as part of therapy at Heart to Heart.
It may seem like a lot of work upfront to learn and practice the language of play in the
context of Heart to Heart’s play therapy model, but parents willing to put in the time and
energy will have inside access into understanding their child. Therapists at Heart to Heart know
the crucial role that parents have in their children’s lives, and they also know the importance of
play in children’s lives; as a result, Heart to Heart strives to connect the two together.
~Tasha Lehner MA