Play is one of the most natural things for children to do – but can it also help them deal with anxiety and other issues? Jo Caruana chats to registered trainee play therapist Maxine Aquilina to find out. 

Most parents love watching their child at play. Imagination runs wild, inhibitions go out the window, and little ones feel free to explore an unchartered world that is only really open to them, their playmates and their toys.

But play isn’t just something children do for fun. Some of the greatest thinkers of all time, including Aristotle and Plato, have reflected on why play is so fundamental in our lives – and, today, a growing number of noted mental health professionals have observed that play is as important to human happiness and well-being as love and work.

Maxine Aquilina, a drama teacher and one of the founders of Jays of Sunshine, has witnessed the power of play therapy first-hand – both in her work so far, and as a trainee play therapist with Play Therapy International.

“I have seen some incredible results among children who are struggling in ways they aren’t able to express,” she says, explaining why she was drawn to the practice.

“I love how, after a few sessions, the child is able to trust and relax, and to really begin to tap into their own emotions.

“However, since it is non-directive, the hardest thing about it is that the therapist is in no way able to ‘rescue’ the child, but must reflect back as much as possible. It may seem tough at first but the benefit of those therapeutic skills are invaluable.”

Play is as important to human happiness and well-being as love and work

After all, play is a child’s natural form of expression. As Aquilina details, it has been scientifically proven that play releases happy hormones in the brain and has been confirmed to be crucial to a child’s development.

“The fact that there is a way for children to express themselves in a safe environment with a professional through play is purely magical,” she says.

And, while the science behind it is impressive, the actions that go into play therapy aren’t particularly complicated, as children are simply encouraged to play.

“The sessions are child-led and completely undirected by the therapist, which means that the child leads and the therapist follows,” Aquilina says. “The playroom where we work is set up with a number of different stations, including arts and crafts, clay, a sand tray, toys, musical instruments, movement scarves and puppets. This means that the child will be able to play or not in a safe space while the therapist follows and observes.”

And the good news is that play therapy can help children with all and any need they may have – including anxiety, phobias, separation issues, lack of confidence, loss and bereavement, anger, social skills, sadness, attention, having a new sibling, living in a new house, or even going to a new school. “And that’s just to mention a few,” Aquilina continues, adding that we tend to underestimate how difficult a new school (or return to school) can be for some children.

“Not all children love getting back into school mode and think of it as a social event where they can meet and play with friends,” she continues. “There can be lots of anxiety about being in a new place or a different environment, as well as fear around the separation from their care-giver or parent, social seclusion or making the grades. This can all really impede on their ability to relax and enjoy their time at school.”

So this is where play therapy can help, as it acts as an outlet for children to express their emotions and enables them to understand and, hopefully, overcome their worries or issues at their own time and pace. “I’ve already seen it benefit so many children,” she says. “From those who are very shy, to others who cannot express anger and even children who have been labelled with ADHD or ADD.” 

Finally, I’m curious about whether parents, too, can use play therapy with their children – and Aquilina confirms there are techniques that can work.

“We live in a world where we are expected to be happy all of the time, so I would suggest that parents simply allow their child to feel,” she says.

“We so naturally go into ‘rescue’ mode. If a child cries, we grab a tissue and tell them that it’s going to be OK and that they don’t need to cry. But, sometimes, we need to be able to cry and to know that those emotions are fine to feel. We should be allowed to feel angry, and to get frustrated without being told off or told to be quiet. If we aren’t, then we risk growing up unable to process those emotions properly, which could lead to later problems when it comes to expressing and later on have problems in expressing how we feel as adults. The first step is to let your children feel, and to talk to them about it,” she concludes.