A question that I have often been asked by parents over the years is, what is the point of playing or playing games during therapy sessions with children?
I have been asked by more than one person, "Do you do ever do anything besides play games?"
As a psychologist, the opportunity to watch children play and to engage with them while playing serves many purposes. First of all, for many young children in particular and even older school age children, playing games is a way of establishing trust, rapport, and feeling safe.
Playing is also an important tool for emotional and behavioral expression in the context of therapy. The material that emerges during most play sessions is rich with clinical information and ripe for interpretation. For example, what are the themes that emerge during the child's play? Aggression? Loss? Attachment? Frustrations about school or home? Is their play organized? Chaotic? Violent? Is it developmentally age appropriate? Can they follow directions? How do they feel about following the rules of the game? How do they handle success and failure? How do they relate to another person (e.g., me) if they believe they are losing or winning? Do they ask for help when needed? Do they give up easily? There is so much information that can be gleaned by the process of being a participant observer of the child.
For youngsters with special needs, who are more nonverbal or highly anxious, or who may have other conditions which prevent them from communicating verbally such as language disorders, autism spectrum disorders, general developmental delays, or selective mutism, the opportunity to play may literally help the child to build a critical bridge towards being more socially engaged and connected to the world around them. On some occasions, for example, I have simply made comments to children while watching them play which were descriptive and reassuring, like, "I see you are building a tower, that's good," or, "you really like to let the stuffed animals fight each other, maybe they are mad/sad, etc.," and that sparks an interest in the child being just a bit more interactive the next session, and so on. This approach is informed by the important work of Greenspan's Floortime."www.stanleygreenspan.com