The use of expressive play therapy as a tool in helping children work through emotional issues dates all the way back to the time of Sigmund Freud in 1909 when he introduced this modality of treatment into his work with children. Freud’s theories were later expanded upon by his students, most notably his daughter, Anna, who systematized and expanded upon the use of play therapy as a legitimate treatment modality when working with children.
The practice of expressive play therapy is focused on helping children work through emotional upset by allowing them to express themselves through play.
There are a variety of types of expressive play therapy including dramatic and fantasy play, sandbox play, and art-focused play. All types of expressive play therapy are premised on the idea that play is essential to the normal development of children. Because children are often unable to communicate and talk about their feelings the same way adults do, expressive play therapy allows a natural vehicle for children to recreate, and with assistance from the child therapist, discuss feelings such as sadness, anger, and worry that might be influencing their daily lives.
As with any method of treatment focused on children, considerable effort must be devoted in the beginning stages of therapy in building rapport and trust that will enable children to express themselves through play. Initially, the child therapist attempts to foster rapport and trust – often referred to as a “therapeutic alliance” – by allowing the child to explore the office and select play activities that are developmentally appropriate and personally appealing. The child therapist may choose to target certain types of play activities in order to elicit certain types of emotions or reactions. For example, the child therapist might introduce doll house figurines and furniture in order to elicit emotions or reactions pertaining to his or her family life.
Through expressive play therapy, children gradually learn how to deal with difficulties they may be experiencing in daily life. In so doing, they begin to develop a sense of efficacy and improved self-esteem that, ultimately, leads to improved adjustment and resolution of any problems they may have been experiencing.