What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a tried and trusted approach used by trained child psychologists and professional social workers to aid in expressing and processing traumatic events in a child’s life. Often children are unable to emotionally process or express traumatic events. Play therapy enables the facilitator to set a neutral and safe environment in which children use play to uncover and deal with phycological issues. We list four frequent play therapy approaches used with specific emotional manifestations within children:

1. Anger:

A child needs to understand that experiencing feelings of anger is acceptable during the play therpay process. The child phsycologist must be able to normalise these feelings for associated guilt to be minimised. Children sometimes struggle to express their feelings effectively, therefore if they experience sadness or disappointment it might manifest in anger outbursts. This is especially true for children who have been through severe traumatic experiences. They often feel guilty or the cause for the trauma event. Self-destructive behavior usually also manifests with anger outbursts.

 A play therapy technique that can be used for anger:

 Materials Required: 

Plastic or wooden blocks.

 Rules of the game: 

The blocks will be divided equally amongst the facilitator and child. The goal is for both to get a turn stacking their blocks on top of the other while discussing topics that cause them to feel angry or upset. For example, the social worker or child phycologist can start by placing his/her block on the floor while expressing something that makes him/her feel angry.

The social worker or child phycologist may communicate items such as: “It makes me angry when someone is mean”. The child can then place his/her block on top of the other while discussing things that may cause them to feel angry. Once most of the blocks are stacked and the child is about to place their last block on the tower, he/she must express something that makes them extremely angry and then knock the tower of blocks down.

This activity will encourage children to express their emotions more effectively. Therefore, by verbalising their emotions to the facalitator it allows the child to become more aware and process these feelings and emotions more efficiently. This activity helps to develop the necessary skills for them to communicate when a problem occur which then ultimately will reduce the behavior of acting out.

2. Sexual Abuse

Due to the severity of abuse situations only a trained registered professional such as a social worker or a child phycologist should handle cases of child sexual abuse. The wrong approach or technique may lead to more phycological damage. A child that has gone through sexual abuse will experience a wide variety of emotions for them to process this extremely traumatic event. The child may present with bed wetting, urinary tract infections, may regress, may show signs of anger outburst or may display severe anxiety. If physical injury is present it is mandatory to take the child to a registered professional doctor for assessment. Helping children who have been through sexual abuse is a long term commitment of building trust and creating a safe space or environment during the play therapy process.

A play therapy technique that can be used for sexual abuse by a trained Registered Professional *

Materials Required:

A piece of paper, along with a poster displaying various types of emotions one can experience.

Rules of the Game: 

The child must draw/paint a picture of a heart on a piece of paper (This heart will then symbolise their own heart). Thereafter, they will match the emotions seen on the poster with their own (what they are currently feeling) and drawing/painting the emotions they identify with, within the image of the heart. Depending on the age of the child, they may interpret some of these images very differently than how it is displayed on the poster. Therefore, to avoid any miscommunication the social worker or child phycologist should explain these emotions displayed on the poster and the meaning connected to it, allowing the child to decide which of these images they identify with most.

Once these emotions have been drawn inside the image of the heart the parent can explore this with the child and discuss all the images portrayed. The goal is to provide a sense of safety for every emotion and allow them to identify feelings they might not even be aware of.

play therapy art

Long term treatment of sexual abuse victims require dedication, commitment and a gentle approach. When the child is ready to discuss the abusive event or events a technique such as Children’s Trauma Incident Reduction can be used. Please note that only a trained registered professional should use the Children’s Trauma Incident Reduction technique.

*not to be applied if you are not a registered trained professional for the safety of the child.

3. Loss/Grief

Losing a loved one can be very difficult for a child, especially if they are still at a very young age and struggle to truly process all that has happened. This is especially true with the loss of a close relative such as a parent. Children will experience not only the physical loss of their loved one, but also emotionally. It normally takes children a while to grasp the true reality of what happened and the loss they are experiencing.

A  play therapy technique that can be used for loss/grief:

Materials required:

Any type of box with a lid (Medium in Size).

Rules of the Game:

In this activity, the box will be decorated as a mailbox. This mailbox allows for the child to write letters to the person he/she lost. (Explaining to the child that the letters will be received, but they will not be able to get any letters back). Writing letters will provide them the opportunity to communicate their feelings and thoughts to this individual even though they are not with them anymore. The aim of this activity is to provide closure as well as a space where the child can express him/herself. Children tend to feel more safe and secure knowing that they can still somehow communicate with the individual they lost rather than losing the relationship all at once.

play therapy for divorce


4. Divorce

Divorce in the family is always painful, not only for the parents but for the children as well. When going through a divorce, there are often a lot of uncertainties and fears children face with the new changes that will take place. As a parent, it is very important to discover these feelings of uncertainties and concerns that children might have.

 A play therapy technique that can be used for divorce: 

Material Required: 

A plastic/glass jar with a lid will be required (It will be called the Worry Jar).

Rules of the Game: 

The child will be asked to write down his/her worries on a piece of paper, these worries and concerns will then be discussed individually before placing them within the Worry Jar. Using a jar symbolises to the child that their worries are being heard and it allows for an outlet, rather than keeping these fears to themselves. An example will be when a child mention’s their fear of the new living arrangements, knowing that their parents will not be living together anymore. The parent and child can then explore this fear, as well as suggest ways it can be resolved. If a resolution is found the child can decide whether they still want to keep it in the worry jar or remove it once the resolution was found. There will however be times when it is hard to provide the right answers immediately, once these fears have eventually been resolved later on in time the jar can be emptied and all the worries can be thrown away.

If you need to talk to a professional regarding play therapy please contact Monique  for Cape Town Area or Gerrie Pretorius in Pretoria Area by contacting us on 079 731 63 67 or email info@lifecounsel.co.za