Play therapy is a form of counseling or psychotherapy in which mental health professionals have clients, usually children, express themselves, using such toys as doll houses, puppets, dolls, toy cars and drawing supplies.
"The toys are the words that children use for self expression," said Debbie Robinson, a therapist with Prairie View.
This week - Feb. 2-8 - is National Play Therapy Week. Robinson, a clinical social worker, and Marlene Ewert, a marriage and family therapist, also from Prairie View, talked to the Kansan about the art of play therapy.
"For children, a lot of their memories and a lot of their experiences are stored in the part of their brain that isn't connected with language," Ewert said. "Using sensory methods is another way of expressing what they've experienced that doesn't require language."
Robinson said play therapy is a way of expressing things when the words are not there. It works especially well with someone who has suffered some trauma.
"Trauma happens on a sensory level and you're not at that moment able to put language to your sensory experience, but you can use drawing or use toys to express what happened."
There are two types of play therapy, Ewert and Robinson explained - non-directive and directive.
With non-directive play therapy, the therapist lets the child lead and tell things through play. With directive play therapy, the therapist might have the client act out a scenario, perhaps byputting on a puppet show and portraying different endings to stories.
Ewert said she has had families use toy animals or other figures in sandboxes to show how families get along. A child might not say she gets mad when mom does a certain behavior, but when there is some distance, she can say it through the sandbox toys.
Robinson said she has had children re-enact scenes of domestic violence that they would not have knowledge of unless they had witnessed them.
Ewert said play therapy is a safe way for children to express themselves "but I think kids still feel vulnerable in doing it as anybody would. I also think that it's hard work. Kids see it as play and parents see it as play, but in reality it is hard work."
The education, supervision and documentation a person has to go through to become registered by the Association for Play Therapy says something about the importance of the role, Ewert said.
"Children and their lives and their feelings are very important and they feel vulnerable and that's something to treat with respect," she said.