Games are powerful tools when working with children. There are so many ways that children can learn and grow through play, including playing games. Kids love games and are open and willing to engage in a therapy format that is fun and non-threatening. They are often willing to learn new skills and discuss life experiences while playing a game that they would not willingly do if play was not involved. For instance, as a new therapist, I tried to engage in talk therapy with kids and it was a mess. They did not want to answer my questions and were resistant to engaging. However, when I presented a game with the same questions, they were more than happy to play and answer them. Since doing play therapy, I rarely have problems with resistance in therapy.
Let's explore some reasons to play games in therapy:
The "Presenting Problem" Presents Itself
Whatever is inside a kid will come out while playing games. For instance, if I am playing Kerplunk with a child who struggles with anger, he will likely get frustrated and/or angry during the game. I can play the same game with children with anxiety and they will clutch their hands or bounce in worry as they pull out the sticks. A child with impulse control issues will struggle to stay calm and steady to remove the sticks without making them all fall. These kids are also likely to grab a handful of sticks at once, resulting in all the balls falling out. We are then able to process the problem and work on solutions during play.
Trust is a foundational aspect of counseling. Without trust, little gets accomplished. Games provide a safe, fun way to connect and get to know each other early in the counseling relationship. I like to focus on coping skill games early on to establish a strong base before diving into painful memories or turbulent issues at home. It doesn't take much trust to learn coping skills. Kids are usually comfortable in the therapeutic relationship before we move on to work on the deeper issues.
Children are usually so happy to play the game that they do not consider how much work they are doing. They learn to verbally communicate during the game. Some games require cooperation and teamwork to accomplish. This offers an opportunity to talk through problem-solving. Some games, such as Feelings Candy Land, are specifically designed for children to communicate their emotions. Some games help process trauma in small steps to help reduce anxiety and feeling overwhelmed with memories. Games like charades help children recognize the importance of body language and Pictionary can help them learn to communicate through art.
Educational or Therapeutic Games
One of my joys in therapy is to see a child use CBT skills without realizing it! It is awesome to see them tell a story about something that has happened and use their skills in real-time to process what to think of it. It is a beautiful thing. More often than not, I will ask how they knew to use the skill and they will relate it back to one of our therapy games. Kids learn SO much information while playing that they don't even realize it. However, you start to see changes in their behavior and relationships. It is usually a slow change, but it happens all the time. There are many kids who are astonished when playing the games because they have been impressed to learn the information. It is rewarding to see the light bulbs go off in their minds as they realize why they do a certain behavior or when they learn how their body responds to stress.
Kids have to learn cooperation and patience to engage in a game. They have to follow the rules of the game, wait their turn, and communicate during the game. Conflict resolution issues often arise, especially if you are doing group therapy. Kids can learn in a calm, controlled environment how to resolve conflict in a way that everyone can be happy. Some games, such as Mouse Trap, challenge children to problem-solve. The players have to work together to figure out how to make the game work.
Modeling and Coregulation
Children look to adults to figure out how to respond to difficult situations. When the child becomes dysregulated, they look to the adult to provide stability and comfort. Games in therapy allow the therapist to model appropriate responses to disappointment, frustration, anxiety, or any other situation that may come up. Children will often mirror what they see and incorporate the skills outside the counseling room. They will learn healthy coping skills to overcome big emotions by watching how the therapist (or parent) responds.
Games allow children to process emotions in a non-threatening environment. The prompts on the cards are usually specific, allowing kids to chip away at a problem one bit at a time. Most are not overwhelming or intrusive, keeping defenses down. Kids are usually comfortable tackling a small aspect of a problem at a time rather than having to confront the whole thing. The questions often target dynamics the child may not have thought of, allowing deeper exploration than what would come naturally through talk therapy. This is a merciful way to process trauma, as kids often feel overwhelmed and are avoidant if they have to tackle an entire trauma narrative at once. Another benefit of using games is that it breaks up the heaviness by allowing different types of questions between the heavier ones.
Games do not have to be pre-made. Many kids will develop their own games to play in therapy. It may be a hide-and-seek game in the sand tray. It could be a battle between superhero figures. Kids are masters at finding creative ways to process the difficulties they are facing. Themes will usually emerge that indicate what the child needs to overcome. It may be creating a conflict situation so they can learn how to solve it. Perhaps the child is being bullied and wants to feel powerful for once. As these issues emerge, you can address them or allow them to naturally play out.
In conclusion, get some games and get going! You don't have to spend a fortune on expensive games to have positive therapeutic outcomes. Many can be found at garage sales or found online for free or cheap. I'd recommend pursuing training in play therapy. The game is the tool, but it is important to be trained on how to use it.