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  • Writer's pictureAMP Therapy Center

Unlocking the Healing Potential of Play: 4 Therapeutic Powers of Play

You may or may not have heard this before, but parents are babies FIRST teachers. Did you know that? Especially those first 3 years of your baby's life, you can actually TEACH your little one how to play! Play is SO important in a child's life and as they get older, their play changes and grows just as they do. While playing can look simple, fun, and entertaining, it actually has the power to do so much more: nurturing touch creating healthy bonds and attachment; learning, growth, and development; and you guessed it...healing. As we say in the Play Therapy world, play can become a child's special language and the toys are used as their words to work through big feelings, scary experiences, or unhelpful thoughts that may be bothering them. Let's introduce the Therapeutic Powers of Play to unlock the healing potential of play.

By understanding the Therapeutic Powers of Play, integrating specific techniques and toys, with a trained or Registered Play Therapist, a kiddo can begin their healing journey. It is actually the play itself that serves as the tool or catalyst for change. Now, you may be wondering, well what are these Therapeutic Powers of Play?? It sounds magical, or at least too good to be true. While I wish I did have a magic wand to wave in order to help all struggling children and their parents, that's only in the fairytales...

BUT there are 4 main Therapeutic Powers of Play: 1) Facilitates Communication 2) Fosters Emotional Wellness 3) Increases Personal Strengths 4) Enhances Social Relationships. Within each one of these, there are 20 core agents of change that support the healing, growing, and learning process for children. The Therapeutic Powers of Play were first developed by Dr. Charles Schaefer in 1993, and have since expanded over the years based on research and clinical experience. The Therapeutic Powers of Play are the change agents that play initiates, facilitates, and strengthens during the child's play therapy journey. So while play can often look like just fun and games, it is actually the most natural way for a child to learn, grow, and express themselves!

Therapeutic Powers of Play

"Showing up, being present in the moment, and helping someone feel safe, seen, and soothed...that is always the answer." - Tina Payne Bryson

Therapeutic Powers of Play

1) Facilitates Communication is the first therapeutic power of play and includes 4 of the core agents of change: Self-Expression, Access to the Unconscious, Direct Teaching, and Indirect Teaching.

Thinking about it this way, when a child is playing and engaging in narrative play, they are developing their stories from memories. A child cannot play out something that they have not experienced, whether in real life, from movies/shows, or stories they hear from others. So, when they begin to play, they are expressing themselves and their experiences through their toys and the creativity, imagination, and narrative play they are engaging in. There can also be direct and indirect teaching during play. Remember what I said, parents are babies FIRST teachers. Therefore, when kids are playing, they are also LEARNING by engaging in self-expression, accessing their unconscious memory, learning through either direct or indirect teaching. And it's all through PLAY. It is facilitating communication which will support them in being able to then verbally (or non verbally) communicate their needs outside the world of play. See how it works?

2) Fosters Emotional Wellness is the second therapeutic power of play, including 6 core agents of change: Catharsis, Abreaction, Positive Emotions, Counterconditioning Fears, Stress Inoculation, and Stress Management.

Now this one includes many big, complex clinical words that we don't use in our everyday language. Let me define them for you. Ever said something to the effect, "oh wow that was really cathartic for me". It's the same root word in catharsis, meaning, "the process of releasing strong or repressed emotions". Abreaction can be defined as "experiencing emotions you have tried to forget." Counterconditioning fears is another clinical word used to describe the process of replacing a negative response, or in this case fear response, with a more positive and helpful response, to eliminate fears, panic, or phobias with certain stimuli (a thing or event). Stress Inoculation, and also Stress Management, are both ways to described learning coping tools and skills to help you manage and decrease your overall stress, especially to external situations that are outside of your control. Okay, now that we have each core agent of change defined, you can see how if a child is able to release big emotions, experience feelings they have been trying to or told to avoid, worked to replace fear responses, and learned coping skills, again, ALL through play, (their natural language and way of communicating), then healing will begin and emotional wellness will be the result. Starting to understand more?

3) Increases Personal Strengths is another therapeutic power of play that includes 4 core agents of change: Therapeutic Relationship, Attachment, Social Competence, and Empathy.

Okay now with the third therapeutic power of play and its core agents of change. By developing a strong relationship with a trained play therapist, working towards healthy attachments, learning empathy and how to engage in appropriate social interaction, social skills, and other social situations in a healthy manner, a child is going to begin to feel more confident in themselves, resulting in an increase in personal strengths. Remember, the PLAY itself is what is the source of change and healing by understanding the child's play through the lens of these core agents of change, with the ultimate result as the main therapeutic power of play. Essentially, play has the power to increase a child's personal strengths within the context of a therapeutic relationship, or healthy strong attachment, learning social competence, and empathy through play. Hopefully it is all starting to make more sense now.

4) Enhances Social Relationships is the last therapeutic power of play with 6 core agents of change: Creative Problem Solving, Resiliency, Moral Development, Accelerated Psychological Development, Self-Regulation, and Self-Esteem.

Last, but certainly not least, play has the power to enhance a child's social relationships through the above six different core agents of change. When a kiddo is playing out a scenario or situation, it allows them to explore different outcomes and ways to solve problems as they arise without the boost of adrenalin if the problem was really happening to them in real life. By having the space to explore and expand problem solving skills, returning self-responsibility, and scenario outcomes, it has the power to increase their self-esteem, strengthen creative problem-solving, and even learn about moral development, resiliency, and self-regulation in a healthy way when they are calm and regulated. Think about it this way, you can't teach a kid how to swim when they are drowning. Play time is like swim practice. This is where they can safely explore different solutions, build resiliency, and navigate trial and error, without the consequences, hormones and emotions showing up in real time. I think you're getting the picture now.

"Take one breath. One day at a time. It won't always be this hard."


Frequently Asked Questions About The Therapeutic Powers Of Play

  1. How do I know if my child could benefit from play therapy? If your child is struggling with behavior issues, big emotions, social skills, or has experienced trauma or life stressors, play therapy can help. Check if they have trouble expressing feelings, get overly frustrated, or seem "stuck" despite your best efforts.

  2. My child just plays all the time anyway. What makes play therapy different? Free play at home is so important for kids! But in play therapy, a trained therapist facilitates the healing process using specific techniques and by deeply understanding the meaning behind your child's play narratives. It's structured but still fun!

  3. How do the toys and playroom help the therapy process? The carefully selected toys are like your child's words and allow them to recreate experiences or express undiscovered feelings through play. The playroom feels safe, calming, and encourages their creativity to freely express thoughts and feelings within the context of a strong therapeutic relationship.

  4. How long does play therapy usually take to see changes? There is no prescriptive number of sessions for play therapy. It really depends on each child's specific needs, but many parents start noticing positive shifts within 8-12 sessions as their child becomes more comfortable in the playroom. Consistency is key!

  5. Is there research behind the effectiveness of play therapy? Yes, decades of outcome studies support the four therapeutic powers of play and its efficacy across a variety of childhood mental health and trauma conditions. It's an evidence-based practice.


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