Brief Overview of Play Therapy

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A Brief Overview of Play Therapy
Rebecca Maxwell
March 28, 2011

From Piaget, we gain an understanding of the symbolism in child’s play. Play is central to the development of a child and can also teach us a great deal about their thoughts, feelings and experiences that they are not developmentally able to verbalize. With its foundations in psychoanalysis, play therapy stems from the work of Herminie von Hug-Hellmuth of Vienna. Along with her contemporaries, Hug-Hellmuth began developing the basis for play therapy as she engaged troubled children in talk and play. Even though there are now many theoretical perspectives for play therapy, there several main assumptions about children that span the varied approaches: children are resilient, they are oriented toward growth, they are worthy of respect, they people capable of experiencing both joy and pain, among others. Child-centered play therapy and cognitive-behavioral play therapy are two popular approaches that are discussed in this paper along with their respective theoretical bases and methodologies for treatment.

Brief Overview of Play Therapy
“Play therapy is a way of helping troubled children cope with their distress, using play as the medium of communication between child and therapist” (Cattanach, 2003, p. 24). Play therapy is also a way of helping rectify problem behaviors in children. Play therapy can be used with any age, but the majority of play therapy is done with children under age 12. Piaget gave us an understanding of the symbolism of play and how it bridges concrete experience with abstract thought. Abstract thought does not develop in children until approximately age 11. “By engaging in the process of play, children learn to live in our symbolic world of meanings and values, at the same time exploring and experimenting and learning in their own individual ways” (Landreth, 2002, p.10) Another major focus for play therapy is the concept of control. Landreth says that “play represents the attempt of children to organize their experiences and may be one of the few times in children’s lives when they feel more in control and thus more secure” (2002, p. 11). Play is central to the healthy development of a child and it is how they learn about the adult symbolic world. It is also how they communicate experiences, thoughts and feelings that they may not yet be able to verbalize. Play can reveal a child’s impression of the world around them. It can also be a natural self-healing process as they “play out” their experiences in the same way that adults would talk them out. “Play is to the child what verbalization is to the adult. It is a medium for expressing feelings, exploring relationships, and self-fulfillment” (Landreth, 2002, p. 16). There are many approaches to play therapy based on the theoretical perspective of the therapist. After reviewing the history, basic assumptions and therapy constructs of play therapy, this paper will take a brief look at two main approaches to play therapy.

Play therapy has its roots in the psychoanalytic method of Freud. In Freud’s “working backward toward the early experiences of his adult patients, [he] set the stage for the logical next step of treating children” (Schaefer, 2003, p.1). Hermine von Hug-Hellmuth was a teacher in Vienna and was the first to formally treat children using both talk and play. Hug-Hellmuth really spurred the change in how children were analyzed, urging peers to get away from using adult techniques with children. Hug-Hellmuth first treated children in their homes, emphasizing the influence of family. According to Schaefer, Hug-Hellmuth believed that “child’s play provides the observer with insight into the child’s imaginings, wishes, and challenges that discipline attempts to suppress” (as cited in MacLean & Rappen, 1991). There were several contemporaries to Hug-Hellmuth who went in slightly different directions with play therapy. Anna Freud of Vienna and Melanie Klein of...
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