Play therapy is generally employed with children aged 3 through 11 and provides a way for them to express their experiences and feelings through a natural, self-guided, self-healing process. As children’s experiences and knowledge are often communicated through play, it becomes an important vehicle for them to know and accept themselves and others. Play therapy is based on Freud’s theories. It uses psychoanalytic techniques together with play to gain access to the child’s unconscious and thus help him with whatever problems he may be experiencing.
There are an enormous number of different kinds of play therapies. Whatever form the play therapy takes, the basic assumption is always the same – the way in which a child plays is a reflection of his unconscious, since through the medium of play a child expresses his deepest conflicts, desires, fears and fantasies which may be at the root of his present problem.
Play therapists believe that past events and unconscious feelings must be uncovered in order to understand and eventually cure the child’s present problems. Generally speaking, in play therapy the child is placed in a room full of many different types of toys. The therapist doesn’t specifically direct his play but is completely accepting of whatever the child does or says. The aim is that in this atmosphere the child gains increasing confidence to be himself and express himself more fully, enabling him ultimately to come to terms with any deep rooted fears, anxieties, desires etc.
Anna Freud – Freud’s daughter modified his technique of treatment to adapt it to children. She aimed to make the child aware of his problems and conflicts and to redirect any fixated libido. She believed that in order to uncover the child’s conflicts, the therapist must actively enlist the child’s confidence and affection. Thus, building up a relationship with the child is a vital part of her therapy. The therapy sessions would take place in a room full of toys, usually including a sand pit, and the child would be allowed to play more or less as he wished.
Lowenfeld’s ‘world picture’ technique (1939). The materials in this type of play therapy consist of miniature people, animals, fences, houses, trees, bridges etc. There are also water and sand trays with three different kinds of sand. The child is allowed to play with these materials as he/she wishes. Different children use the materials in quite different ways. Some will build mini-replicas of towns whereas others will make no attempts to reproduce reality but have animals rushing everywhere. The child is then asked to explain the world that he has built and what will happen in it next. It is believed that the content, style and the amount of movement in this ‘world’ indicates the degree of the child’s disturbance and what is causing it.