What children say through their play

One of the great joys of being a dad is seeing my daughter come alive when it is time to play; and now that I think about it, play seems to accurately describe everything she does aside from eating, sleeping, and basic hygiene (and she even manages to find ways to playfully engage in those activities, too)! Whether it be indoors or outdoors, on her own or with others, with toys and with things she turns into toys (she has shown me the many uses that a cardboard box can have when approached with some imagination), my daughter is constantly playing. It comes so naturally to her.  

I find that when I take the time to join with her in her play, either through intent and joyful observation or through getting my hands dirty myself, several things happen:

  1. I learn a lot about her as I see her blossom in all her activity – how she is uniquely wired and gifted.
  2. I see her learning some of her first and most critical lessons about herself, others, relationships, and the world.
  3. I am able to come alongside of her and express, both in my presence and in my words, the immense care and love I have for her.

Although on the surface, a child’s play may seem inconsequential and ordinary, it is anything but that. As my daughter has shown me, play is the primary means children use to experience the world and to express themselves. Although their ability to communicate through words may be limited, children are constantly communicating with us through their behavior (and especially their preferred behavior of play) if we have the eyes to see it, the ears to hear it, and a heart and mind that is open to receiving what they may have to tell us.

This is why I sought training in play therapy. Play therapy is an approach to treating the psychological, emotional, and relational concerns of clients, particularly children, through utilizing the therapeutic powers of play. In my work as a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor, I believed that children had something valuable to say if I could find a way to give them a voice. However, all the models and techniques I had learned up to that point were built on the assumption that clients and I would be able to “talk through” their concerns, and I found that in using these talk-based methods with children, I was, in effect, asking that they speak a foreign language. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that they often looked like they were lost in a foreign country when I attempted to work with them through talk!

Through play therapy, I am now able to enter into the world of children with ease through using the language of play – a language that children speak fluently. Play therapy has reminded me that children often experience the same kinds of hurts, burdens, and struggles as adults do, yet many find such experiences more difficult to process given their developmental abilities. Play therapy has made all the difference as I am better able to come alongside of children and support them in their journeys towards growth and the realization of their full potential. A helpful side effect of learning about play therapy is that it has also made me realize that when my sweet little girl plays, she (along with all children) has a lot to say if I take the time and effort to join her. 

Nick Cornett, PhD, LMFT, LPC, Registered Play Therapist is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at John Brown University. His specialty areas include play therapy and marriage and family therapy.