Why Play?

Humans are hardwired neurobiologically for play. In fact, there is considerable research that demonstrates that play is a fundamental emotional and behavioural state. Play is essential for growth and development of healthy emotions, thinking patterns, behaviours, and relationships. In fact, play is how we develop our earliest relationships and come to know ourselves, and when we, children, adolescents, AND adults, don’t have the opportunity to play difficulties begin to arise.

Raven telling Tree a story.

For children, play is essential for learning and developing the ability to regulate their emotions and behaviours. Research shows that children’s play is on the decline in favour of structured academics and a growing reliance on screen time. It is no surprise that rates of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are on the rise. Free, imaginative play, particularly outdoors, is necessary for children to grow into healthy adults.

Cat is learning about emotions.

Play is also necessary for adults. As we age, we often give up play. Sometimes we’re “schooled” out of it. Sometimes we are shamed out of it by peers, parents, teachers, and others. Our basic need to play is often sublimated into sports or more practical pursuits such as crafts like knitting (we love sports and crafts; keep doing it!). However, exercising our imagination and re-igniting our neurobiological play circuit promotes health and wellbeing because the emotion that accompanies safely experienced play is joy. Play and emotional experiences are often associated with the right hemisphere of the brain as well as the mid and lower regions of the brain. We need to “exercise” these areas to build or rebuild that “muscle strength”. Talking about our emotions and our experiences utilizes the left hemisphere of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and the mid-brain region. When adults play and then talk about it with an attuned professional, we are working holistically and maximizing the therapeutic process. We know also know that promoting positive emotions like joy, even during difficult circumstances, helps people develop resiliency and an increased capacity to cope with life’s challenges. So we invite our adult clients who are open to the idea of engaging in play, such as sand tray, because we know from both research and our experience that it can be beneficial.

Sand tray.

How does play in therapy work? Play gives us the opportunity to imagine our world and our experiences differently, and to safely try out new ways of being. Play allows for experimentation and the possibility to imagine different outcomes. Play allows us to externalize our concerns and emotions, sometimes about things we don’t even know are troubling us. Getting the issue to the “outside” so we can take a look at it together promotes awareness, insight, and gives us ideas about possible ways forward. With enough repetition, play with a caring, attuned professional can help people rewire their brains – a concept called neuroplasticity. Children take to play in therapy naturally. They often don’t talk explicitly about their play experiences because their brains haven’t developed enough to be able to do so. That’s okay, we’re still working effectively based on their developmental stage. Play in therapy looks different for adults as it often involves some play and some “talk therapy” to process the play experiences. Sometimes, adults need to relearn to play. Everyone finds their own way to engage in the process as their own speed.

How long does the process take? The honest answer is that it depends on the individual and the circumstance that brings them to therapy. Some issues are relatively quick to resolve by just telling the story, either verbally or through an expressive medium like sand tray or image making, to a non-judgmental, trained professional whose only agenda is your well being. Sometimes people need information or they need a sounding board to check things out. Other issues are far more complex and have been building up, in the case of adults, sometimes for decades and will take a longer time to resolve. Therapy works best when we consistently work at the pace that your mind/body needs.