By Leslie Marshall, MA, LPCC-S
How did you communicate 10 years ago? How about when you were 4, 8 or 12 years old? For many of us, that would be a formidable journey down what may be a rocky memory lane.
Today we communicate by using our words, logic, and rationale (hopefully); however, for children, this type of conversation may resemble a foreign language or sound like the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Then, to make the communication gap even wider, the brain does not function properly in the midst of stress or when trying to recall a situation that evokes strong emotions, resulting in a “tuning out” to logical conversations. Here at Directions Counseling Group, we apply the therapeutic power of play to communicate with and treat children.
When we are relaxed, we can respond to things logically, calmly and purposefully. When we experience stress, a hormone called cortisol is released into the brain system. No matter your age, when this hormone is released, it shuts down the frontal lobe of the brain (our logic center). When functioning properly, the frontal lobe gives us a sense of control, allowing us to make wise decisions. In addition, cortisol activates the brain stem (our autonomic system) which keeps our body functioning without logic, allowing the person to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This divine design has proven useful in many circumstances, when we need super-human strength to lift something in an emergency situation, or when we need to run extremely fast to avoid danger. Unfortunately, with repetitive exposure to stress, particularly at a younger age, the release of those hormones and the impact they have on the brain’s wiring can be detrimental to brain development, resulting in developmental delays, learning disabilities or mood disorders.
Play is essential to cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. Play therapy is created to be a restorative experience, a tool to not only reduce the negative impact of experiences, but also to optimize a child’s development. Non-competitive play can be used to put the brain at rest, allowing children to communicate more clearly and restore a sense of self control as they think about themselves and the world on a smaller scale. Various toys allow children to work through fears and anxieties as they transfer their feelings and reactions to objects, allowing them to express themselves while having distance from the situation. A professional helper is then able to work with a child to improve self-expression, self-awareness and developmental skills.
In addition to the value of therapeutic play with a skilled professional, there should also be careful consideration regarding the environment in which the therapist meets with the child. The setting in which they meet should be well planned and organized, producing a sense of safety and consistency.
With that in mind, we recently completed a major renovation of our Play Therapy Room. Colors, toys, games and various creative mediums were carefully selected to help children express themselves and deal with various issues. In addition to being therapeutic, we are noticing that children are actually enjoying being in this space and parents who partake in the process are better able to learn and honor the way their children communicate and learn.
As Garry Landreth, author of “Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship,” says, “In play therapy, toys are like the child’s words and play is the child’s language.” Our role is to help them uncover and express the difficulties they are experiencing in such a way that healthy communication develops and natural brain development resumes.