As school begins to come to an end, kids look forward to the summer – a time when there is ample opportunity to play and have fun. Play is an essential element of a healthy childhood and its presence is so valuable, it’s recognized as a universal right for children by the United Nations. This is in part because, despite what may initially meet the eye, play serves many important roles and functions in the development of a child. Within a therapeutic context, a clinician can use play to foster 4 key therapeutic processes: communication, regulation, practice and mastery (Gaskill and Perry, 2014).
One of the goals of therapy is to help a person to express his/her feelings and process his/her experiences. While adults can typically do so verbally (i.e., with words) and directly (i.e., regarding the specific incident/experiences), children and teens are still developing the ability to translate their inner world into words and to tolerate the discomfort that can arise when discussing something directly. Play offers a way for children to communicate their experience without needing to rely as heavily on words. It also allows them to express themselves through a character, which can make it easier for them to relay their experience.
Being able to regulate and control our emotions is another common goal in therapy. Learning to do so occurs best when we feel safe. Play can serve the dual purpose of creating safety and facilitating emotion regulation. Play fosters safety by providing a non-threatening context for a child and adult to build trust and relationship. That sense of safety in turn can inherently calm an overactive system and the act of playing gives the child opportunities to experience what a regulated body and regulated emotions feel like.
Play offers children a way to introduce new skills either indirectly (e.g., having different toys practice taking turns) or directly (e.g., a child learning to take turns with an adult as they play). The indirect approach allows a child to learn the skill in an non-threatening manner from which, over time, they can learn to eventually apply it in their own lives. Because play is inherently fun, the direct approach allows a child to experientially practice a skill in a way that engages them and keeps them motivated to persist in practicing that skill.
Play is a constant in a child’s life and so the regular repetition of play allows children to master new skills, whether it’s positive social interactions, emotion regulation or specific skills taught via play (e.g., learning to try your best even when something is hard). Mastering skills increases a child’s sense of accomplishment and provides them the confidence that they have the tools to face their experiences.
Thus despite its seeming simplicity, play has many layers to it. And so as we head into summer and you see kids playing, whether outside, at home or in therapy, don’t forget that what may appear to be simple fun can be accomplishing much more than that.