Processing Life Through Play

Thank you to Heather Benbrook, the author of this web page. Heather is a school counselor and also an LPC-Associate completing her supervision hours under the supervision of Bonnie Mondragon, MS, LPC-S, RPTS. For more about Heather, click here.

A Glance at the Magic of Play

Have you ever seen a young child opening a new gift? After the wrapping is off, what are they more interested in? Exactly…the box.

As adults we might see a regular box that needs to be thrown in the trash or recycling, but the child sees endless possibilities. It can be a castle, a rocketship, a dollhouse, a cave or many more places or things.

A playroom is a magical place and the toys within it are magical objects. The playroom and the toys within it allow for infinite creativity, boundless independence and limitless expression of raw emotions.

A child’s mind is an amazing creation and it is continuously and exponentially growing and thriving as they play every day. However, many times children have difficulty expressing oneself and their emotions through verbal communication.

In fact, Garry Landreth, a well-known play therapy pioneer with the child-centered approach, stated that “play is the language and toys are the words.” That is why their play is so important. In order to truly understand children, we have to immerse ourselves in their play.

Once we do that, we support limitless emotional expression and help build coping skills developed through the natural actions and language that children utilize.

In this article, we offer strategies and insight to consider when supporting your own children in their moments of play and natural emotional expression.

The Playroom

There is a major point that needs to be clarified about the playroom.

Just like the regular old box, playrooms can be normal, everyday places. You don’t have to create an elaborate room with a fairytale mural on the walls, a treehouse in the corner and that is loaded with the newest and best that is on the market. Sometimes when we do that, it actually takes away the creative opportunities for kids to truly express and play in a natural way.

The playroom doesn’t even need to really be a room. It can be in the car, in a corner, on the kitchen table, or anywhere the child is. The size and location is really not as important as the safety to feel like they are able to express themselves without judgment, the autonomy to control and make their own choices in their play and limited boundaries to ensure their physical safety.

As we know, children in our Duchenne community thrive on all of these aspects in everyday life as well. Many times they already feel different or judged based on their mobility or muscular differences, so they need a place to be a child free from even the perception of judgment or questioning of why they play a certain way.

Control and mastery are a common play theme with children with Duchenne as well. When they do not feel in control of their situation, thoughts or emotions, they have to have something to feel like they excel at or have control over. What better place to have control than in a play space.

Lastly, physical security and safety are definitely of utmost priority with our children with Duchenne because we know that getting hurt with Duchenne can be very different and more impacting compared to the general population of children. Thus, setting limits and boundaries for safety in play is important but should be limited to safety to allow for true expression.

Let’s Talk Toys

There are many categories of toys and all toys can have a purpose within the play process. It is not necessarily what the toy is that is important though, it is what it means in the context of the individual child’s play.

The Center of Play Therapy at UNT recommends toys that allow for creative exploration, allow for realistic application to real-life, are fun and interesting to children, and can stand the test of time and durability (CPT UNT site). Also, toys should not be brand new typically, involve too many pieces and be a source of danger in the play area.

Another point to be mindful of when talking about toys is that it is not about quantity but more about being a selective quality and type. It is not about what we read as what the toy means but about what the child creates it to be.

The Center for Play Therapy at UNT also outlines the major categories of toys as being:

  • Real-life and Nurturing toys such as medical kits, money, cars, dolls, phones, etc.
  • Acting-out, Aggressive, Scary Toys such as a Bop Bag, soldiers, puppets, weapons, handcuffs, etc. and;
  • Creative expression and emotional release such as sand, arts and crafts, instruments, dress up clothes, etc. (UNT Center for Play Therapy).

The next area of toys would be miniatures, figures and other smaller expressive mediums. It is important to have a mixture of symbolic, magical toys and realistic toys as well. Some items that this might include are realistic, culturally diverse dolls, dragons, animal figures, action heroes, toy cars and trucks, medical equipment toys and furniture that can be used in a sand tray or dollhouse.

With our children with Duchenne, it is important to keep in mind that the toys need to be diverse and representative of their experiences as well. However, just because you don’t have some medical equipment toys on hand, it doesn’t mean that this cannot be represented by other toys at their fingertips.

The joy of toys in a child’s mind is that they can be anything that they want them to be. The dragon or a superhero can be representative of a doctor depending on the experience of the child. The snake could be a shot. The princess figure could be the nurse that brought a smile to their face on their last clinical visit. The possibilities of toys can be infinite.

Ultimately what matters is the child’s expression through the toys.

What Does Their Play Mean?

With my experience with clients, no two children play the same and no two sessions are ever the exact same. It is truly amazing that the play sessions are just as unique as the children are unique as individuals in this world.

Play also doesn’t discriminate with age. You can be 1 or 100 and still use play to express what you need to say or feel like you can’t verbalize with words. Play can be a powerful means of emotional expression for all individuals.

When stress, trauma and difficult situations find our children, play can be their release and therapeutic resolve. Especially with our Duchenne community, play can be a crucial part of the therapeutic process and bring about a peace that words might not always allow for.

Bringing all of this together, we don’t necessarily have to know what the play language means, what words the toys are portraying or try to make sense of it in our own minds. The ultimate goal of play is emotional release and expression. Over time, children will play out what they need to in order to find the resolve of the difficult situation that life brings.

Having a caring adult be there with them in these moments is the glue that holds it all together.

More to Consider