What do you think when you see kids playing? Are they just having fun? Wasting their time? Or is something deeper going on?
As a counsellor who works with children of all ages, I have seen firsthand the value of play in healing, but play isn't only important for children who need help. It's not even just important for children - adults benefit from it too!
So, what are children doing when they play? Perhaps most obviously, they're having fun. A child who's relatively secure and happy in their environment will find joy through play. Children often explore their imaginations when playing - a way of safely pushing their own boundaries. And play is a great way to learn social skills, both when it goes well and when it doesn't. Not only that: play develops physical skills, language skills, confidence and creativity. Any Early Years or Key Stage 1 teacher will tell you how important play is to the children in their care.
When teens and adults come to counselling, it's often a relief to talk. But when younger children come to counselling, our work tends to be based mainly around play and less around talking. For younger kids, talking can feel too much like an interrogation, while playing is more natural. What is played and how can communicate as much as a whole session's worth of words.
Every child plays in a different way, so I offer a choice and let the child decide what interests them. We might play with soft toys or small figures, do some drawing, attempt a puzzle together, open the play doh or act something out with puppets. Once a relationship of trust has developed, children will generally play out their current preoccupations and concerns. The death of someone close, the tricky school transition, the way they really feel about their parents' divorce - all of this, and more, is expressed through play.
How does this expression help? There's much to be said for the very act of expressing troubles - of getting them out there and feeling that someone else understands what you're going through. I commonly see children become better able to express their anxieties outside the counselling room, once they have tested out expressing them in a neutral space. Playing provides a kind of bridge between what's going on for the child and how they show that outwardly - giving them and their adults more choices about how to make things better. Through play children become more confident and more able to trust themselves.
If you're a parent and you're concerned about your child, getting them to play with you is a great first step to helping them. Sometimes when there's a lot going on for you, the parent, or a lot happening at home, play can make you and your child feel vulnerable, exactly because it can cut right to the heart of things. This is where counselling can help add a dimension of safety and consistency to helping a child through play.
Next time you get the opportunity to join in with some child's play, know that you are doing more than "just" having fun (though that's important too!) Let the child lead if you can and enjoy the knowledge that you are helping them express something important about themselves, as well as building their confidence and developing their skills.
And if you want to talk more with me about counselling for children of any age, you're welcome to contact me.