In Play Therapy sessions there is often a debate on play themes. Questions come up of “was that actually a play theme or were they just playing?”
And this question is an important one!
Now in theories like Child Centered Play Therapy we in no way need to know or understand their theme to be helpful, but it does help us understand their movement through the play process towards healing. It answers questions about if a child is stuck, what exactly they might be processing, and if they are making movements towards thinking and feeling in a way that feels better in their day to day life. In short - is integration and healing happening?
What if I told you that I don’t believe any play is without meaning?
If we look at grownups and teens - everything we say and do has a purpose. What we say and what we leave unsaid has a meaning. We talk about our days, our stresses, our struggles, and our successes in order to be heard, felt, and seen by another.
I believe this is also true for play.
What a child chooses to play has meaning, thought, and intention. What needs they are attempting to meet, issues and experiences they are attempting to get perspective on, distractions and avoidance - it all holds meaning.
Even play that is re-enacting sequences from movies, TV shows, or video games - a child has selected those scenes as meaningful enough to recreate and have another person hold space and bear witness. Just like adults listen to music they feel connected with or share with their office mates one of their favorite parts of a show they binge watch or a movie they just saw.
Every behavior is searching for something - connection, to feel seen, to be in community, to have validation, to gain more understanding. And for kids? They do this through play.
So if we know this to be true, can we really say that anything is “just playing”?
I want to issue an invitation for us to see all play as meaningful and important and not dismiss what a child brings into the playroom as less than if the play doesn’t fit what we think it should be. Kids have done some of the most profound work in some of the simplest play sequences, that upon later reflection the meaning has become clear.
Looking for more resources and support around play therapy themes? Check out the training Dinosaurs In The Dollhouse: Interpreting Themes in Play Therapy and learn the 7 frameworks and tools to interpret play themes with TONS of case examples!
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC,