Experiential Play Therapy was developed and tested on a theoretical level by Drs. Byron and Carol Norton. As a child-directed play therapy method, Experiential Play Therapy recognizes that children are people, but not adults or miniature adults. Reaching children through play is entering a child’s world, relating to the child’s unique perspective, and forming safe and empowering relationships with honor and respect for the child. The honoring process entails being present, accepting, respecting and validating a child’s emotions and behaviors, giving meaning and value to everything the child says and does in the play session (Norton & Norton, 1997).
Through Experiential Play Therapy, the child is allowed to lead with support from a counselor as they process their emotional experiences and communicate. Children strive for growth and maturity. They are capable of self-direction and will use their therapy where it is needed the most in order to process their experiences at a rate and time and in a way that will best suit their own personal, unique needs.
How Does it Work?
Confronting their emotional pain, children repeatedly re-approach the memories of their experiences in the stages of development in which they occurred, in an effort to resolve trauma and master emotional responses in play sessions (Norton & Norton, 1997). The child regains a sense of empowerment, reframing the intense emotions associated with the traumatic experience and replacing it with a restored internal sense of well being (Norton & Norton, 1997).
Does the Therapist Utilize Talk Therapy During the Session?
Verbalizations by the child may be limited due to cognitive levels of development, developmental delays and the evocation of intense emotions associated with the memories of the traumatic events (O’Connor, 1991). Verbal processing by the therapist is more likely received by the child’s left-brain. Research shows that during traumatic and posttraumatic experiences the left-brain hemisphere shuts down, blocking integrative pathways between the right and left-brain (Teicher, 2000).
At the age of two years, children can engage in symbolic play, using symbols outside of themselves to represent themselves (Piaget, 1963, Garvey, 1977). Children have the ability to recreate an event in play using symbols that recapitulate the same emotions experienced in the actual event (Irwin, 1983). Children play out their developmental needs for nurturing and protection and share experiences in their relationships through associations and symbolic themes with toys and play materials. Play becomes a child’s natural form of communication. Toys are their words and play is their language (Landreth, 1991).
How Does the Therapist Know What the Child is Trying to Say?
Children can communicate about a traumatic event by recreating that experience in play, attaching metaphorical and symbolic meaning to toys (Norton & Norton, 1997). They use imaginative-fantasy play to safely disguise, through distance and displacement, traumatic events and the emotionally charged issues associated with traumatic experiences such as separation trauma, neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, medical trauma and exposure to domestic violence (Pearce, 1977, Schaefer, 1993).
Imaginatively playing through trauma experiences, children reenact these experiences in the developmental stage occurring at the onset of the trauma (Norton & Norton, 1997, Gil, 1991). Neurobiological research evidences that trauma is stored in the right hemisphere of the brain at an experiential level in specific stages of development (Teicher, 2000). Play therapy at an experiential level allows for access to trauma memory and the accompanying stage of child development.
What is the Therapist’s “Part” in the Experiential Play Therapy Session?
Children approach therapy at an experiential level through play and play activities (Norton & Norton, 1997, Oaklander, 1978). Experiential play therapy is actively playing with children, sharing in the play experience and using therapeutic responses and reflections that match the experiential level and stage of development of the child (Norton & Norton, 1997). Entering children’s play and interacting with them on an experiential level provides immediate access to the child’s emotional pain and facilitates the opportunity for healing.
Who Can Experiential Play Therapy Benefit?
Experiential Play Therapy provides children with the chance to work through the stages of exploration, testing for protection, dependence, therapeutic growth, and termination until they are able to achieve mastery of their experience. This type of therapy can be useful for the following: Conduct Disorder, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Traumatic Stress, Somataform Disorders, Adjustment Disorders, Developmental Issues, Elimination Disorders, Eating Disorders, Dysfunctional Family Settings, Selective Mutism, Lack of Empowerment, Identity Problems, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, Narcissistic Disorder, etc.
For additional information on how to benefit from the use of Experiential Play Therapy or to discuss additional psychotherapy options with an experienced, licensed practitioner, contact New Adaptations today.