Child Psychologists in Littleton Debate: Is Play Therapy Just Playing? Is Talk Therapy Just Talking?

Child playing

Young children with behavioral or emotional problems are often referred for play therapy. Littleton’s child behavior psychologists and play therapists know that play is a language in and of itself, and is the natural way that children engage with and connect with the world. But many parents observe a play therapy session, or hear their child talking about their play therapy activities and ask “are you just playing?” Keep reading to see why play therapy is so much more than “just playing.”

Play as Language

If you’ve ever watched a group of young children, you know that they don’t really converse like adults do. Yes, they talk (often non-stop!), but few kindergarteners will sit across from a peer and say “hello friend, how was your day? Have you seen the weather lately?” In fact, when kids want to engage, they usually start with a familiar phrase: “want to play?” Even adults hate small talk, so kids skip it entirely, moving onto the best interaction there is: imaginative play. Play is the language that kids use to communicate. It is about doing, not saying, about moving, not thinking. Play allows children to explore and investigate safely—like VR, but driven only by imagination. Play therapists in Littleton use this imagination space to learn and grow. Play has been credited with improving emotional regulation, learning, self-confidence, and socialization. “Just” play!

Is Talk Therapy Just Talking?

Here’s a parallel: Is talk therapy just talking? When adults visit a psychologist in Littleton, they talk and talk and talk. Do you remember being a small child and thinking this was all adults did? For most neurotypical adults, talking is the preferred mode of communication. Most adults would feel very uncomfortable if they were asked to re-enact their conflict at work using puppets, or to fingerpaint a picture of how their spouse made them feel—just like many kids feel very uncomfortable when they are asked to talk about their hard day at school. Psychologists are specially trained to listen and communicate, whether their clients talk with words, actions, or play.

Indirect Instruction Works

Does your child lash out physically and hit others, even though you have never used physical punishment? Can she list a thousand coping skills, but use none of them? Is he manipulative and cruel to friends, even though you’ve only showered your family with love? Direct instruction works well for skills like reading and math, but humans pick up their relationship, conflict resolution, and coping skills from all over the place. You can drill multiplication facts into someone’s head but making them repeat coping skills endlessly does nothing. Instead, providing opportunities for indirect instruction, practice, and supportive skills (such as self-regulation, self-efficacy, and flexibility) can make these tools more useful. Self-directed or child-directed play helps children to plan, predict, and develop executive function skills in a safe, pretend setting.

Play therapy is the preferred treatment for children 7 and younger, and elements of play therapy are beneficial when working with people with learning or intellectual differences, trauma histories, and people who struggle with speech. If your young child has behavioral or emotional regulation problems, or if you have been referred to a child psychologist, see if your therapist uses elements of play therapy.