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Exploring emotions through play
Mamas & Papas June 2010

Why playing can be therapeutic

First introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, play therapy provides a non-threatening environment in which children from as young as three years to 18 years of age are encouraged to share and deal with their emotions. It is also often used as a method of assessment and has proven particularly successful in children with special needs.

Play therapy “is a way of counselling children and adolescents [where] the therapist mostly makes use of games, toys and other mediums such as clay, drawings and paintings to help the child or adolescent share and deal with emotions in a non-threatening environment,” explains Wietske Boon, a qualified play therapist.

In addition, play therapy is a tool often used for emotional assessment, and the therapist will observe how the child or adolescent plays in order to determine the possible causes for disturbing or non-typical behaviour. Boon elaborates: “The objects of play and the patterns of play, as well as the willingness to make contact with the therapist, [are] used to understand the underlying rationale for behaviour both inside and outside the session.”

The origins of play therapy

Play therapy was first formally introduced in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, followers of the psychoanalytical school of thought. Modern play therapy, however, started in the late 1940s and has its roots in the nondirective approach of Virginia Axline.

Although it has been practiced in the United States for more than 50 years, play therapy is a relatively new approach in South Africa. However, the successes in treating children and adolescents are expected to be duplicated in a South African context.

Who can benefit?

In order to benefit from play therapy a child should be able to communicate fairly well. It is therefore recommended that children start from three years of age, and the therapy can be beneficial until the child reaches approximately 18 years of age.

Boon notes that any child with emotional or behavioural difficulties can benefit from play therapy sessions, including those who need to adjust to new situations such a moving provinces or schools; children who have gone through a trauma or who are bereaved; children whose parents are divorcing or divorced; or children experiencing stress, anxiety or depression.

In addition, children with special needs - such as Autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or any other physical or mental delay - can also benefit from play therapy sessions. “Play is a necessary part of every child’s development,” Boon explains. In this situation the child with special needs is accepted as he or she is and the therapist goes with the child’s process. Thus, the child determines the pace and the activities. The therapy also focuses on the sensory, emotional and self-awareness that is necessary for the child [to grow and develop].”

If anything, children with special needs are susceptible to feelings that come with being seen as different, especially as they become more social and are exposed to their peers and the communities in which they live. Assistance in understanding their emotions, as well as the acceptance of themselves and where they are in their own development can be, at the very least, a healing tool.

Play therapy and autism

“Autism is primarily a social communication disorder where children have difficulty communicating and interacting with people around them. Play forms a very powerful means of getting through to these children,” says Aniel Redelinghuys, a private speech and language therapist who specialises in autism.

Redelinghuys goes on to explain that play-based therapies such as Stanley Greenspan’s Floortime approach are great tools in supporting children with autism to develop attention, communication, play and language skills. Using play-based therapies and a one-on-one approach, can also assist a child with autism, who prefers isolation and is easily over-stimulated, to engage with the therapist without feeling a need to run away or avoid the interaction.


Boon notes the reasons that traditional play therapy can be beneficial to a child on the autism spectrum as follows:
• The therapy is aimed at building a trusting one-on-one relationship between the therapist and child.
• The therapy room is a safe environment where the child leads the session.
• The child is accepted as the individual that he or she is.
• The child gets the opportunity to act out aggression and anger in a safe environment.
• The child’s self-concept is improved by focussing on the child’s emotions in different situations, by self-awareness and by role-play, which give the child the opportunity to act out different situations.

Play therapy does not use only single technique. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ technique used during therapy,” Boon advises.

Redelinghuys also notes that traditional play therapy is not often used as a primary source of therapy for children on the autism spectrum. More specialised therapies based on play, such as the Floortime approach, are greatly beneficial.

Both Boon and Redelinghuys agree that play therapy is a great approach for siblings of children who are on the autism spectrum. “Siblings of children with autism often have many emotional challenges to face while growing up,” Boon explains. “Research indicates that they should be included in intervention in order for them to better understand their sibling’s disorder, and to deal with their own emotions and equip them with coping strategies.”

Play is undoubtedly every child’s natural state of being. It is the way in which they explore their environment and express themselves. It is also a great indicator of what they are feeling and the thoughts they are having about themselves and their environment.

However, play is not only a source of information about a child’s inner world, but a learning opportunity for a child. From birth, throughout childhood, and even adolescence, children learn about their world and themselves through play and interaction.

Play therapy provides a holistic approach, involving parents, teachers, siblings and other important people in the child’s life. It can play a significant role in the child’s life. It can play a significant role in the child’s life, and clarifies the best possible treatment for the child, typical or not. •