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Recent literature encourages the use of play therapy as a counseling medium for elementary school counselors (Baker & Gerler, 2004; Newsome & Gladding, 2003; Schmidt, 2003; White & Flynt, 1999). In addition, play therapy helps school counselors in the implementation of the National Standards developed by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). These standards guide counselors to help students "acquire the attitudes, knowledge and interpersonal skills to help them understand and respect self and others" (ASCA, 2003, p. 2). When responsive services are required of the elementary school counselor, play therapy appears to be one of the developmentally appropriate methods of intervention.
Rationale for Play Therapy
At the Preoperational Stage, a child is acquiring the skill of language in which symbols are used to mentally represent objects. Also, in this stage, a child's thinking is rigid and limited to how things appear at the time. This is the stage of magical thinking in which children create implausible explanations for things that they do not understand. Regarding play, a child's play behaviors become increasingly imaginary and fantasy driven. The play, however, will increase in complexity from make-believe play to encompassing emerging cognitive patterns. Internally, the child is improving understanding and knowledge, but externally, the child lacks the ability to communicate this enhanced way of processing within the world. Play is one of the primary ways in which a child can communicate this internal awareness of self and others.
During the Concrete Operations Stage, the child grows in personal ability to reason logically and organize thoughts coherently. Children are able to manipulate ideas and accept logical societal rules. However, they can only think about actual physical objects. They are limited in their ability to engage in abstract reasoning. In this stage, children are unable to express certain complicated emotions, such as guilt or resentment, because of the need for abstract thought to understand such emotions. For those children operating in the Concrete Operations Stage, play helps to bridge the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought.
Building on a developmental understanding of children, Axline (1969) and Landreth (2002) both identified basic principles that guide the therapist in play therapy. These basic principles are consistent with a child-centered philosophy of working with children (Landreth). They include, but are not limited to, the following:
In summary, play is an important medium for children for several reasons. Play is a natural language from which children express themselves (Landreth, 2002). Developmentally, play bridges the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought. Play offers children the opportunity to organize their real-life experiences that are often complicated and abstract in nature. Children gain a sense of control through play and also learn coping skills. Play therapy utilizes this understanding of children by offering children a therapeutic environment for their play. Play therapy is defined as a dynamic interpersonal relationship between a child and a therapist. The therapist, trained in play therapy procedures, provides selected play materials and facilitates the development of a safe relationship for the child to fully express and explore self. This process occurs through the child's natural medium of expression, play (Landreth).
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