Lifestyle Health

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Power of child's play

Niamh Hooper

Published 11/02/2008 | 00:00

Play therapist Eimir McGrath
Play therapist Eimir McGrath

Toys are the child's words, play is the child's language -- is an analogy that best encapsulates this week's column.

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'Play therapy' is a form of psychotherapy established more than 50 years ago in which the therapeutic powers of play are used to help children resolve or prevent psychosocial difficulties.

"Play is a child's natural medium of self-expression and through it, they can make sense of their life experience and the world -- as well as work through any problems encountered," explains play therapist Eimir McGrath.

Working privately and as the senior play therapist with special needs children in St Michael's House in Baldoyle, she has used play for the past 30 years in her work.

It is, she believes, the quickest way to build up a relationship between an adult and a child.

"While adults often communicate verbally, the natural way children communicate is through play," explains Eimir.

"Often they won't have the words to attach to how they are feeling, yet through play they are able to express what they are experiencing or feeling.

"In a therapeutic situation, that means you are able to provide a means for the child to work through whatever the issue may be."

Usually, a client -- be it a child or an adult, in which case the therapy is often known as creative therapy -- attends a minimum of 10 sessions. The reason for this becomes apparent very early on. Essential to the therapy is trust. I imagine any child or adult would feel comfortable in Eimir's presence, with her gentle demeanour.

For an hour we have a session, and I'm brought way back by the smell of Play Doh whch I fiddle with. I assemble stones, sand and miniature toys representing my family on a piece of blue paper.

In the placing of each, we have a springboard to talk about things in the past. Nothing hugely insightful comes to the surface, but what is happening is a feeling that trust is developing.

"The therapist provides an environment where there is 'unconditional positive regard', in that the client is accepted as they are, in a non-judgmental way. They are safe to express anything they want.

"They learn that this is a space where they are going to be heard. In that space their issues emerge -- for example, often a child who has been neglected or emotionally abused will go and play with the dolls or wrap themselves up in a blanket and drink from a baby's bottle.

"With children, you'll find there is an aspect of their development that is arrested at the point of trauma and they need to go back to that point to continue their emotional development," says Eimir.

Play therapy is also very effective with school problems, as one mother tells me. Anna Brennan from Dublin's Drumcondra says she has a different little boy this year in comparison to last year, thanks to play therapy.

"My little boy, Cathal, was about two when the creche he was attending said they didn't want him back because he was so disruptive and was biting the other kids. But when back at home, he regressed. I brought him to a montessori school in Homefarm Road and after three months, the owner there said he was having behavourial issues.

"After a couple of explosions -- tantrums, flinging of things, screaming and crying due to his inability to communicate -- we contacted the Mater Hospital for child guidance and then someone suggested play therapy.

"I have to admit, I was sceptical about what it could do, and then when I met Eimir she said she wanted to see him alone -- that this was his special environment. And a year later that is still the case; it is his special time and he loves it.

"She updates us generally on his development but his sessions remain confidential, unless there is a particular issue. She has managed to set boundaries with him and he conforms to her rules which we were never able to do and now he is playing 'age-appropriately'.

"At home he is different -- whereas he was hugely impulsive before, he now self-regulates his behaviour by doing little calming exercises. And he is hugely creative."

Verdict: My session gave me a sense of the importance of trust and acceptance in growing through an issue. But the real verdict here comes from Anna on her son, Cathal.

"Through play therapy he is more able to communicate what is going with him and what he needs. And we have learned that a child deserves to be rationalised with and respected -- and left to make their own choices to a degree."

A private play therapy session generally costs €50-€60. For a list of practitioners, call Play Body Ireland on 087 413 8101

Play Therapy: How does it work?

The Facts

Play therapy originated in the 1920s with the work of the pioneers of child psychotherapy, Anna Freud, Margaret Lowenfeld and Melanie Klein. They shared the belief that play communicates a child's unconscious experiences and emotions.

In the late 1960s, Virginia Axline developed the model of non-directive play therapy used thoughout the world today. Using creative media as well as traditional toys and 'aggression-releasing' toys, a child is permitted to communicate non-verbally.

Play therapy is used with children or adults who are experiencing communication, behavioural, learning and relationship problems, underperformance, aggression, withdrawal, bullying, autism, neglect and trauma.

Useful websites are and

The Evidence

Major studies include one which found that children exposed to domestic violence had a significant reduction in behaviour problems as a result of play. In 2001, an analysis of 94 research studies found that play therapy is an effective intervention for a broad range of children's difficulties.

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