A child’s play is an intrinsically motivated, nonliteral and imaginative activity that provides them with a nonverbal mode of communication while facilitating development (Landreth, 2002; VanFleet, et al, 2010). Children are strongly motivated to engage in activities that capture their attention and reflect their inner world. As a therapist, play therapy allows us a view of a child’s beliefs, feelings, intentions, and perceptions (VanFleet, et al, 2010). The therapist’s role is to establish a relationship with children through play and create a safe environment that is accepting, respectful, and sensitive to their needs, (Play Therapy, Basics for Beginning Students, 2006). In doing so, it is important for a therapist to adjust his interventions to suit a child’s unique needs. Communication must be adapted to a child’s developmental needs, cultural perspective, and life experiences (Landreth, 2002; VanFleet, et al, 2010). Below, I provide an overview of how every child’s needs might vary and how to adapt accordingly.
Variations in a Child’s Needs
Landreth, (2002) utilizes the metaphors of molasses vs. popcorn, and orchid vs. mushroom, to describe the varied approaches children display to life’s problems (p50). Understanding a child’s unique developmental, sociocultural, and interpersonal needs essential in order to adapt effectively. Understanding how a child’s needs can vary is a first step to contextualizing observations during therapy. What follows are just a two examples.
Variation in Stages of Play
Children can be observed displaying stages of play during therapy. VanFleet, et al, (2010) discuss stages of play that include: (1) warming up, (2) aggression, (3) regression, and (4) mastery. These stages are a convenient assessment of a child’s progress while in therapy (VanFleet, et al, 2010). In contrast, Landreth, (2002) mentions stages with an emotive focus that include observable stages represent the gradual development of greater self-awareness.
Systems Theory & Ecological Perspectives
Other variations in a child’s needs can be understood from a systems theory and ecological perspective (Metcalf, 2011; VanFleet, et al, 2010). From a systems theory perspective problems are reflective of the home environment. A complex web of interpersonal relationships in a child’s home often has a circular causality, which influences the child in complex ways (Metcalf, 2011). Adding to this insight is an ecological model of human development (VanFleet, et al, 2010). This ecological model describes children as embedded within an immediate family, community, neighborhood, as well as culture (VanFleet, et al, 2010). These contexts further complicate the nature of each child’s unique and highly varied needs (Gil & Drewes, 2005).
Diagnoses & Presenting Problems
The discussion board posts this week are convenient examples of how children often bring complex issues to therapy. Diagnoses such as PTSD, ADHD, and autism, each present with unique challenges for a therapist during play therapy. Complex issues such as severe neglect or sexual abuse often require a multidimensional approach in which one singular intervention is rarely sufficient (VanFleet, et al, 2010).
Adapting to a Child’s Needs
Molasses vs. Popcorn
Adapting to a child’s needs is no simple matter in light of all the ways it can vary from individual to individual. Since play is a form of communication, adapting a child’s unique needs is essential so this can be possible. Landreth, (2002) provides an excellent example in his utilization of the popcorn and molasses metaphor to indicate varied energy levels present in play therapy. VanFleet, et al, (2010) discuss two cases that are excellent example of the molasses and popcorn metaphor found in Landreth (2002). In one case, VanFleet, et al, (2010) share the story of a nine-year-old boy with ADHD who would around in therapy like popcorn. Therapists captured his attention and intrinsic motivation by providing physically engaging activities he enjoyed (VanFleet, et al, 2010). Directive play interventions decreased his impulsivity (VanFleet, et al, 2010).
In contrast, VanFleet, et la, (2010) also discuss another case of a boy about the same age with PTSD who had grown up in a domestic violence situation. With symptoms of hypervigilance, night terrors, depression, and explosive anger, he was brought to therapy (VanFleet, et al, 2010). Initially, he refused to talk and played alone in a corner. The therapist was patient and let him move at his own pace. Nondirective Child-Centered Therapy was utilized in which the therapy provided a safe, accepting presence (VanFleet, et al, 2010).
The above examples are a convenient illustration of how I might respond to varied levels of energy in play therapy. The underlying goal in any interventions would be to provide an environment in which a child can engage a play-oriented communicative exchange with the therapist. With a goal of providing a non-judgmental and accepting presence, it would be my goal to respect the child’s own self-actualizing tendencies (Landreth, 2002). Allowing the child to lead the way, would mean being in tune with their needs and patiently following along with adaptations necessary to maintain a therapeutic environment (Landreth, 2002).
I have worked as a C.N.A. and Psych Tech for about 13 years. In this span of time, I am frequently assigned to a patients on a 1:1 basis for safety purposes. Based on this background, I have noticed the greatest difficulty with adolescents and children who are defiant and oppositional. In the context of my position, I am required to set limits, so the patient adheres the rules of the acute care units while maintaining safety.
Setting aside my roles as mother and health care worker, are required in the play therapy context. This would present the greatest challenge for me personally. The nature of a play therapist’s interaction with children is based on an attitude of respect and acceptance. Providing these qualities requires an awareness of how I am present with the child from moment to moment. The intentionality and self-awareness underlying all this, would be essential in order to be fully present and provide a child unconditional validation.
Gil, E., & Drewes, A. A. (2005). Cultural issues in play therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
Landreth, G. (2002) Play therapy: The art of the relationship (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Metcalf, L, (2011). Marriage and family therapy: A practice oriented approach. New York: Springer Publishing Company
Play Therapy: Basics for Beginning Students [Video file]. (2006). Microtraining Associates. Retrieved September 10, 2015, from Academic Video Online: Premium.
VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. New York: Guilford Press.