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Working therapeutically with young children

Playing is a wonderful way to build trust with children!
Playing is a wonderful way to build trust with children!

by Vicki Davey, M.A., M.Ed.

Plato said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” (Henderson & Thompson, 2011.p.558). It is well documented that exercise is good for us. Physical exertion releases endorphins and adrenalin into our system which makes us feel better and gives us energy. When we are healthy and fit we function better physically, mentally, and emotionally. We can use exercise as a cathartic experience to work out physical and emotional stresses, as relaxation through stretching exercises, through organized sports and games, or something as simple as playing together.

When they are unable to articulate their thoughts and feelings verbally, children can express what is troubling them through play, creative expression, and physical activity. Fourteen advantages of play therapy identified in Henderson & Thompson’s Counseling Children are: overcoming resistance, communication, competence, creative thinking, catharsis, abreaction (symbolically reenacting to gain a sense of mastery), role play, fantasy, metaphoric teaching, attachment formation, relationship enhancement, positive emotion, mastering developmental fears, and game play (Henderson & Thompson, 2011.pp.562-563). Carmichael said, “The ultimate goal of play therapy is to help the child change beliefs that are causing difficulties” (p.568).

In determining best practices for play therapy from a coaching perspective, I have reviewed literature from different theories of practice including those with focuses on children who have been abused and neglected; who have witnessed or suffered traumatic events; children of divorce and single parent households; those who have anger management issues; and, those who suffer with ADHD, ADD, ODD, and OCD. Getting to know these children and helping them understand and get through their loss and grief and/or feelings of anger; to teach them that they are allowed to be happy and do not have to live with those feelings; and, that they can change their behaviors and live better lives is the whole point of the therapy.

Building trust between the counselor and client is the most important step in this relationship, and creates a bridge from the physical and hands-on activities to the sharing of their problems or hurt. Observing children engaged in free-play independently, with other children, and with their families helps us determine how they socialize and interact with other children, siblings, and/or their parents. How they share (or do not share) what they are playing with; how they use the play medium or instruments; and, how they use their imagination may open a window for us to join them where they are as we step in as an empathetic and reflective listener.

Physically directed play activities engage large muscle groups with gross motor skills, and the body releases endorphins into the child’s system which is a natural way to let the “happy” happen. Including music with these activities may help reluctant children engage because of their innate sense of rhythm and the inner joy that music can evoke.

These activities improve listening skills as the child relies on verbal instruction to complete obstacle courses or other physical challenges, provide structure, and build confidence through encouragement and praise from their “coach” as they progress and improve in their physical agility. Children learn that it is okay to make mistakes because they can try over and over again until they get it right. For instance, when children face various physical fears (such as the fear of climbing or heights), they learn that it does not hurt to fall (or fail) because (with safety mats beneath them) they can simply get up and try again. In a safe and structured counseling/play therapy environment, children learn that they are able to accomplish the task and become successful through practice and repetition. They trust that their coach/counselor is there to catch them (physically or emotionally). The support is gradually withdrawn (scaffolding) as the child's skill level increases and self-confidence is gained naturally through the positive experience of achievement. As their agility and skills in physical challenges improve children will be proud of the tasks they are able to accomplish, and their self-esteem and sense of mastery will naturally improve as a result. The conquering of these physical fears can then be converted to their real-life situations (Henderson & Thompson, 2011. pp.273-274).

Because talk-therapy may be beyond the child’s level of cognitive development and because they may not understand what they are feeling, play therapy can offer a safe environment for exploring feelings through physical play; for venting frustrations through catharsis inherent in physical exertion; and, through discovering healthy ways to navigate obstacle courses that correlate with social environments and their life in the world outside the counseling facility. These activities will translate to better coping skills in the child’s everyday challenges for themselves, with others, and in the world.

In play, all children can be successful because every kid is naturally good at playing. Through participating in play therapy children can improve their self-esteem and gain a sense of mastery over themselves, their interactions with others, and in their world. When they are given a safe place in a nurturing environment where they can express themselves, children with poor self-esteem, who feel discouraged, inadequate, hopeless, and/or worthless, will experience positive changes in their thinking, feelings, and behaviors.

By having an appropriate place to direct their energy, children can “play out their feelings and thoughts energetically, cathartically, and in a safe environment that provides boundaries and structure” (Portie-Bethke, T. et al, 2009).

This type of counseling is perfect for children who struggle with impulsivity related to ADHD/ADD and OCD, or who are dealing with anger issues or ODD and may benefit by being able to release their anger/energy through active physical activities and challenges. The challenges provided in this environment embrace the child’s high energy, hyperactivity, and impulsive nature along with their attention seeking behaviors by channeling it to structured activities that have boundaries and expectations that support these children.

Not only does the release of endorphins from physical activity and exertion naturally relax the child, but prepares them for quiet time involving creative expression of thoughts and feelings. Soft music playing in the background (which can be over-stimulating for some children) generates activity in the intellectual part of the brain further stimulating interest and participation. Different types of activities help children open up and share. These might include arts and crafts, drawing and painting, working with sand or clay; literature and dramatic activities that include listening to stories, creating their own stories through drawing, narrating, or acting them out; listening to and/or adding movement to music; sing-along songs (like Raffi or other well-known children’s music artists); the use of make-believe and fantasy using superheroes; or, using the “miracle question” may inspire sharing. Pet therapy is another valuable tool that often helps children open up, overcome fears and anxieties, or let go of loss and process grief.

Active play is important for the growth and development of every child, for weight management, and will also help parents because after physical exertion children will be calmer and more agreeable. Since each child is a unique person with their own personality and identity, goals and plans for therapy should be individualized according to each child’s needs. Running a program based on a “one-size fits all” premise would do a great disservice to the children and families we aim to help. To find qualified counselors, check with your local church, community center, or Chamber of Commerce.


Henderson, D.A. & Thompson, C.L. (2011). Counseling children. (8th Ed.). Belmont, CA. Brooks/Cole

Muro, J.H. et al. (2012). Coaching techniques and play therapy responses: A new communication pattern. Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators. 25.6,12. Retrieved from

Portie-Bethke, T.L. et al. (2009). Strength-based mental health counseling for children with ADHD: An integrative model of adventure-based counseling and Adlerian play therapy. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 31.4; 323-339. Retrieved from

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