Play is the Therapy We All Need
The last few years have presented challenges for everyone. It has been said that we have experienced a shared trauma. While it’s looked different for each of us, the truth remains that life has held some extra challenges for most everyone. Those challenges haven’t been experienced only by adults. Children are aware of the changes and the stress around them. Many of them are also naturally aware of - and can teach us a bit about - one of the best ways to deal with these new challenges: PLAY!
Play is full of opportunities for learning, but it’s also one of the most natural forms of therapy we have available.
In play, children have an outlet — physically, creatively, emotionally – to express all the feelings they can experience but likely not articulate.
Think about this:
Have you had a hard time putting your feelings into precise words? I know I have. And yet, we are decades ahead of these little ones when it comes to linguistic experience. In play, children don’t need to know the words “anxiety”, “grief”, or “disappointment”; they can simply act and give those emotions an outlet.
Pounding play dough, running and stomping in the backyard, making decrees as an all-powerful king or queen, taking blocks and creating something of their own design – every one of these (and more) can help children work through feelings that are far bigger than their vocabularies.
Play helps children to find power where they feel powerless, control where they feel uncertainty, and an escape from the uncomfortable.
Through the magic of play, children are omnipotent. They control the pieces. They control the scenes. They control the outcomes. Every “and then…” is at their discretion.
Play is the perfect escape hatch in turbulent times, and we have the benefit of being invited to come along.
Here are a few of the types of play we can support our children in, along with the therapeutic benefits that accompany them. And remember, these benefits are available to us grown-ups as well, so jump in!
(As a disclaimer and a point of note, it’s important to distinguish therapy from therapeutic. Play is always therapeutic, meaning it has qualities that provide healing, repair, and renewal. Those therapeutic qualities are inherent in play. However, that should not be conflated with clinical therapy, which is a type of treatment under the guidance and supervision of a clinical professional. Play therapy is an effective form of clinical therapy, and while these play activities share the same therapeutic properties, this should not take the place of clinical therapy or be misconstrued as clinical supervision and/or advice.)
Emotions are often stored in the body. You’ve felt it as a knot in your stomach, tension in your shoulders, or energy running down your arms. It’s the reason we shake our fists in rage and embrace in joy. Whether it’s anxiety or excitement, anger or joy, it is natural for our bodies to provide an exit for emotions and energy through movement. It doesn’t even have to be a conscious release. Simply moving helps our mental state.
When children have time and space to move their bodies — running, climbing, jumping, dancing, riding bikes, playing games – they release emotional tension and reap the benefits of ”good mood neurotransmitters”. *
Play that engages our senses helps to center us as we manipulate rice, water, foam, sand, or a million other materials. Along with several other benefits, this type of play often helps soothe worry and anxiety because immersing oneself in the sensory experience helps us become present and rooted in the immediate reality around us.
In fact, a common therapy practice for reining in overwhelming emotions includes a grounding exercise that encourages people to name the things around them. It requires them to take in all the information from their senses and helps them to stay present in the moment. Likewise, in sensory play children become rooted in what they are experiencing through their senses, and reap similar soothing benefits.
In the preschool classroom, this type of play is often – but not always – found in a water table, sandbox, or bin. At home, it can be as simple as a sink, the bathtub, a dirt patch in the yard, or a baking dish or storage bin full of dry rice. On the playground, it’s..well, everywhere! As children dive hands first into any material they can manipulate and feel, they often become more centered and focused.
Playing out in nature is the ideal combination of so many forms of play, particularly physical and sensory play. In getting outdoors for play, children almost instinctively engage in more large motor movement — running, climbing, jumping, balancing — while also engaging fine motor skills as they change their grip to hold an unending variety of materials or turn over delicate discoveries. At the same time, they’re also reaping all the benefits of soothing sensory play that comes prepackaged in their natural surroundings. Perhaps this is why research has shown time in nature to be restorative and enlivening.
Any type of creative play — from the structures built out of legos or blocks, to the paintings, stories, and dances improvised on the spot — gives children an expressive outlet and the sensation of control. Intangible things like ideas and emotions become reality as we give external form to whatever lies inside. Creativity becomes an outlet for the things that are too big to continue carrying, but that we can’t put down without fully processing.
Perhaps it could technically count as a subcategory of creative play, but imaginative play deserves a section all its own. When children engage in imaginative play (also called dramatic play, pretend play, or simply “dress up”) they become masters of their own universe.
As children engage in imaginative play, they can process big ideas and emotions – even ones they can’t put words to. As I wrote years ago, “fantasy play is the fertile ground where children’s ideas are scattered, nurtured, and allowed to flourish.” They may wrestle with ideas of power and control by simply taking on the role of a powerful monarch, parent, or superhero, or inversely, a helpless infant. They may choose to play doctor to try to make sense and take control of the information around them. Themes like school, restaurant, friendship, or family may all be used to process feelings of loss and change right now.
As Kate Cray wrote in this article for The Atlantic, “Play is children’s language. They act out pretend scenarios as a way to express concerns, ask questions, and, crucially, reshape a narrative. In a pretend scenario, children are driving the plot and can change the outcome of a scary situation or try out different solutions to a problem.”
In imaginative play, whether in a dress-up context or a small world context (think Matchbox cars or doll houses, where the child directs the entire “small world”), children can sort through difficult concepts and emotions in a way that is empowering. This imaginary world also provides a fun diversion and an escape from the present to a world to a place fully within their choice and control. It’s a place where smiles and laughs are almost unavoidable and worries are always manageable.
While some may feel play isn’t a priority in stressful times, I would contend that it’s actually one of the things children – and perhaps the children in all of us – really need most right now.
Amanda Morgan is the creator of Not Just Cute and Not Just Cute: The Podcast. She writes, speaks, and trains on the important role of play in intentional, healthy, whole child development. The Playful Child is thrilled to have Amanda join our Why Play Panel of experts who will be sharing wisdom, advice, and research on our blog! Be sure to follow along.