The Power of Play and of Play Therapy


By Lauren Zerbst, LCSW

What images come to mind when you think about the word “play?” Children running and shrieking with delight? Pets tumbling, frolicking, or pouncing on a toy? How about driving a motorcycle on an open road or gardening in the sunshine? Even a funny conversation with a friend or partner can engage our playful sides.


Now think about how you feel when you participate in your favorite activities or interact with your favorite people. Most likely you are relaxed, exhilarated, and free from some of the burdens in your life. This is the power of play.


Play takes many forms throughout the life-span and is an important part of development, connection, relaxation, and happiness.


Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of The National Institute of Play and author of the book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul explains, “When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality…Play is a catalyst. The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do.”


I work with many children, adolescents, and even adults through a play therapy model. The purpose of play therapy is to find relief and joy in the moment of play, but also to “play out” problem scenarios using the play space as the dress rehearsal for real-life problems. As a therapist, I engage in the play only as much as the client wants my involvement, and I usually let them direct the play.


Play, especially in children can illustrate so much of their psychological and emotional experience in their day-to-day lives. It gives people a metaphoric language to communicate without focused words and sentences that may miss nuances or lead to negative emotions and thought patterns. It is possible to find new meaning, solutions, and healing through play. Play therapy brings the science and structure to play to enhance these effects.


A play therapist is looking for clinical connections, cognitive development, reoccurring themes, and patterns through the scene being played out by the client and can provide an intervention or make an observation through play to spark change and/or catharsis.  After a play therapy session, depending on the age of the child, there is time for processing of the play and how it might correlate to the problems faced outside of the office and ways the client can approach it based on what happened or didn’t happen in the play.


Play therapy can coincide with other non-traditional therapy models such as art therapy, dance/movement/athletic therapy, theatrical improvisation, music therapy, etc… It can also be woven into more traditional therapy models and experiences. I always try to reconnect my clients with the playful parts of themselves and remind them to make time to play in their lives. If you or a loved one could benefit from play therapy, please contact us to learn more and get started!


In the meantime…Go out and play! Go out dancing, challenge someone to a game of chess, wrestle, have a tea party, build a fort, play tug of war with your dog, have an intimate moment with your partner, or cook something delicious. Whatever you do and however you play, I recommend you lose yourself to the power of play and let it transform you.


As Dr. Stuart Brown says, “Play is the essence of freedom. {When we play} The things that most tie you down or constrain you – the need to be practical, to follow established rules, to please others, to make good use of time, all wrapped up in self-conscious guilt – are eliminated. Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.”


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