“To ‘play it out’ is the most natural self-healing measure childhood affords.” – Erikson, 1977
Playing is how children try out and learn about their world. Play is therefore essential for healthy development. For children, play is serious, purposeful business through which they develop mentally, physically and socially.
Play helps them to discover who they are and who they are not. It teaches them how to identify, understand and manage emotions. Play is the child’s form of self-therapy through which problems, confusions, anxieties and conflicts are often worked through. Through the safety of play, children can try out their own new ways of being, practice roles and explore situations.
Play performs a vital function for the child. It is far more than just frivolous, lighthearted, pleasurable activity that adults usually make of it. Play serves as symbolic language. Children, unlike adults who communicate using verbal expression, communicate through play and activity. Play and expressive therapies serve to create a necessary therapeutic distance for clients. Clients in emotional crisis are often unable to express their pain in words, but may find expression through a projective medium.
Play and expressive therapies can be effective in overcoming client resistance. They are generally non-threatening and engaging and can captivate and draw in the involuntary or reticent client. It can also address verbalisation that is used as a defence. For example the pseudo-mature child or the verbally sophisticated adult, who may use rationalization and/or intellectualization as defences.
Play and expressive media are effective interventions for traumatized clients since neuro-biological effects of trauma point to inhibitions on cognitive processing and verbalization and thus indicate the need for and benefits of expressive intervention.
A primary result of trauma or crisis is a loss of control for those in its midst. A loss of emotional, psychological and even physiological control is one of the most distressing by products of crisis and conflict. Clients is turmoil feel the frustration and fear of having lost control. A crucial goal for these clients is thus empowerment. Play is a child’s work and world. They are the experts in play, and can thus experience and regain a sense of mastery and control, through play.