What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist helps children to address and resolve their problems. Play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them (Axline, 1947; Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002). Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others. 

As a play therapist, I utilize a more specific type of play therapy approach, Experiential Play Therapy, which was developed by Dr. Byron and Carol Norton, who currently practice and resides in Greeley, Colorado. They believe children encounter their world at an experiential (experiences, in the moment) rather than cognitive (thoughts and thinking) level. Play for a child is like water is for a fish; the jungle for a monkey, and so on.

Many child therapists use Child-Centered Play Therapy (CCPT), which was developed by Dr. Gary Landreth, at the University of North Texas, which is very different from Experiential Play therapy (EPT). Compared to CCPT, in EPT, we take the child much deeper into their emotional world and the unconscious to make more meaningful changes and provide a unique experience. 

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How Does Experiential Play Therapy Work?

Experiential Play Therapy® is a model of play therapy with a strong belief in the child’s quest for health. Only the child knows their particular perceptions of their life’s dilemmas. Therefore, in Experiential Play Therapy, the child is allowed to be the director of the play. In that process, they will utilize toys and their creativity to recreate their experience in an environment that enables them to approach their struggles so that they can regain the power that has been lost in the actual event or environment. The therapist becomes a partner in the child’s quest, assuming whatever role the child requests. This play is active, as the child and therapist use body movements to expel the stress of the experience and empower the child to move forward.

As Dr. Byron and Carol Norton noted in their book "Reaching Children Through Play Therapy", Play becomes an adult life rehearsal for the child, who have had basic physical needs met on a consistent basis, has experienced emotional nourishment and cognitive enrichment in life, as well as having opportunities for and permission to play (Lewis, 1993).

In my practice, I have seen positive outcomes utilizing Experiential Play Therapy with many young children who have experienced physical, mental, or sexual abuse, death, and many other kinds of traumas. There is a large body of research on the impact of trauma on the body and brain, and if untreated, it can impact a person’s well-being in all aspects of life. Especially for children who have experienced trauma, many children lose opportunities to gain the positive experiences of play that benefits their current development; instead, they spend their time and emotional energy into attempting to protect themselves as well as trying to resolve the trauma they experienced.

As a Experiential Play Therapist I believe....

I have very extensive training in Experiential Play Therapy with the developers, Dr. Byron and Carol Norton. Attending Norton's intensive training out in Colorado over the years, I have worked with many children utilizing Experiential Play Therapy and the stories that are expressed in session. Here are a few common Principles embraced by Experiential Play Therapist (there are over 120 listed by Dr. Byron Norton):

-The child has an innate capacity to move toward healing
-Children speak through their metaphors of play and behavior.
-All children want to have a sense of power in their play therapy
-Children want someone to hear them, not just tell them to change their behavior.
-"The healing of a child occurs in the context of a relationship." (Moustakas, 1992)
-Children have a personal wisdom about their lives that most adults never comprehend
-Children are existential beings who deal with anxiety, abandonment, death, shame, belongingness, etc.., as part of the meaning and struggles in their lives
-A difficult birthing process is a child's first or primary trauma event.
-To most people, children's play in only play; to the child it's the meaning of their life.
- A child who is afraid to play is afraid to exist.