The language of play: children communicate in a universal language

Emily McNeill, play therapistBy Emily McNeill, LMSW, RPT | Play Therapist KidsTLC

Play is a crucial part of a child developing into a healthy adult.

As a Play Therapist I advise all parents and caregivers to be more playful with kids and use play to build relationships.

Board games are one of the best ways for families to interact with each other and to have fun together. Parents who play with their child often have a better idea of what troubles them, frightens them or makes them happy or proud of themselves.

Play can also be a critical part of the healing process for a child who has experienced trauma.

Play therapy is a great way to help children express anything and everything from grief over the loss of a parent or grandparent, to fear after being in a car wreck, to sadness and uncertainty regarding adults in their lives because other adults have neglected, or abused them; physically, sexually or emotionally.

In play therapy the child who comes into my playroom becomes the boss. The child will lead the way and often discovers the connection between the play and real emotion. I am there to support and be helpful.

Our play therapy rooms consist of toys, coloring books, or sand trays filled with sand and miniature figurines where the client creates their own world. The child uses this to project how they see the world, how the world treats them, and how they treat others in turn.

Sometimes they re-enact the bad things that have happened to them, or they may play metaphorically. For instance, a toy lion is always “beating up” the toy cat, and the turtle goes into his shell to escape the fighting. A metaphor perhaps for domestic violence at home.

Play therapy is subconscious in a way, but at the same time the environment that play therapy creates helps the child to feel safe and in charge and lets them experience trauma in a way they are best able to handle it.

Emily works with a child who attends her play therapy session at KidsTLCI have lots of fascinating conversations with the kiddos. Sometimes they realize their play symbolizes their pain. Other times I help them figure it out. We start talking about the world and where they fit in and how they can manage their feelings.

It is natural for adults to be confused or frustrated by children who act out or misbehave. But when trauma and fear have been part of the child's life that child often uses what we call "maladaptive coping strategies" in their attempt to avoid being hurt or to find a way to feel safe.

The important thing to remember is that they are just kids. In most situations they have come from extensive trauma and a history of neglect. Even though they may be physically aggressive or difficult they are doing the best they can at that time. My job is to help them change what their "best" is.

An 8-Emily McNeill works with a child who attends her play therapy session at KidsTLCyear-old girl that I worked with was fearful of everything. She had been severely abused, neglected in early childhood and had post- traumatic stress disorder. She was terrified of more adults hurting her.

We worked together in the play room for three years.

At the end of therapy she was able to be open and honest about her feelings, she could go to the dentist (something that terrified her) and even get up in class and give presentations.

We can all use a little more playfulness in our lives.

KidsTLC is a serious place sometimes but we can use play to make it more fun and engaging. If the adults around are able to be silly and fun that sends a message that they accept kids for who they are and believe in the child's ability to move beyond the abuse in their early life and become a happy and healthy grown up.

The Play Therapy position at KidsTLC is funded by Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City. This post originally appeared on the KidsTLC blog, reposted with permission.


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