Mental health expert Esraa Farag uses play therapy to help both adults and children recover from a range of problems including trauma, and she explained her approach at a recent lecture at the El Sawy Cultural Wheel in Cairo.
“I use play therapy to help treat problems ranging from trauma, bad memories, worry or depression to dysfunction or attention problems, hyper-activity and rebellion or aggressiveness in children,” she said.
The American Association for Child Therapy, a US professional group, describes play therapy as “the healing ability of play to deal with a child’s problems to prevent problems for normal growth,” Farag commented. “From my point of view, play therapy can also help the therapist understand a child’s psychological make-up through the way he or she plays and help to treat any problems.”
Play therapy can be used not only for children, but also for adults, she said. “Play is as innate for adults as it is for children. Men and boys like to play, as do women and girls. A man may even be upset if he is unable to play,” she said, adding that men are notorious for playing games on mobile phones, for example, or playing football with friends.
Playing your problems away
“Life coaching can be used to help adults learn skills and manage stress through certain teachable techniques. It is widespread in Europe, though it has not been taken up to the same extent in Egypt. Companies use it to give employees a sense of positivity and make them feel that they are going to play, not work,” she said. Research has shown that play during work can help employees work longer hours and have other benefits.
Play therapy can also be used to help parents deal more effectively with their children, raising their awareness and strengthening their positive behaviour towards their children. For this to take place, it is important to understand the stages a child’s play goes through and the social development of the child, she said.
“In the first phase of a child’s play, he uses his senses, like the sense of touch, to help him to learn. Then, from three to five years old, he engages in ‘motion play’ and imitates his parents. In middle childhood from six to nine years old, he starts to leave his safe circle and starts social interaction. In this phase of play, a child learns social skills that include learning what is right and wrong. This is the stage at which a parent can teach social values through play,” Farag said.
“In late childhood from nine to 12 years old, play takes on a more interactive form in which a child will play more complicated games,” Farag added, commenting that it is in this phase that a child may suffer from problems in the middle and late stages.
Play therapy aims not just at finding out what these problems may be, but also at helping to fix them by sending children indirect messages during games. “An advantage of play therapy is that it is a form of therapy that depends on innate or natural means. It is a way of understanding more about the subconscious feelings of a child as these appear in play. It can help raise awareness of positive behaviour in a child. The most important advantage is that a child does not feel that he is in a therapy session at all – he thinks he is simply engaging in play,” Farag said.
Play therapy is good for the family as well, and for the child it can help improve behaviour and reinforce a positive spirit. It can enable a child to face different situations and help him to reach out to others in a better way. It can also develop a child’s creative abilities and enable him to be more decisive and foster self-restraint.
A child may be more aware of his or feelings after play therapy, and it can decrease his anxiety. Play therapy can help children deal with their thoughts and feelings in a more positive way and help them to improve social skills. Children may have more self-confidence as a result of play therapy, and it may help them to interact with others and explore the world more confidently, Farag said.
“Drama work can help children understand behaviour, and it can help them to understand better what is right and wrong,” Farag said. Parents can invite children to watch plays they act out for them using favourite cartoon characters as a way of teaching morals. “Balls can be used to teach children self-confidence, as well as skills like focusing and paying attention, for example by teaching children to juggle with many balls at the same time,” she said.
“Toys can also be used to convey the ideas we want children to think about, or the feelings we want them to understand. Emotion games, like asking children to pick out faces to show their feelings during a game, can also be helpful, and they can also help parents to understand their children better. A toy car could be used to teach a child how a car works and what happens inside it,” she added, stressing that parents should always seek to understand the positive side of a child’s playing habits.
“You should ask your child to put the pieces of a toy car back together, and he should be asked questions like ‘why did you take the pieces apart’ so you know how he sees the toy. Does he think of it as a car? Never underestimate the imagination of a child, as this can tell you something about his feelings,” she said.
Puzzles can be very important for children, especially younger children, as they can be used in developing concentration skills, creativity and imagination.
“We often don’t fully understand our children because we do not live in the moment as they do. A child may be playing with a doll while her mother is calling to her, for example. The mother may not understand that for the child the play takes priority,” Farag said. Her mother should therefore talk to the child about the toy and negotiate with her through it instead of asking her to stop playing and have lunch instead.
Children who believe that anything they can get their hands on is automatically their property, they should also be encouraged to learn to share with others by passing balls and other things to other children.
Reactions to play therapy depend on the type of child, as there is not one formula that can be used for all children. Mobile phone games such as Subway can be used to develop the abilities of a child with special needs, like teaching him how to strengthen the nerves of his fingers and use his fingers more effectively when using a pencil.
Farag ended her session at the El Sawy Cultural Wheel by asking each adult present what games they played that gave them pleasure, throwing a ball to each participant to catch before speaking.
“Research has shown that children who tend to be hyper-active may be the most capable in later life. This is because of the nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for motion that if left unused can become ineffective,” she commented.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw