“In brain studies, it takes about 400 repetitions to learn a new skill. But when you incorporategl play, it takes like 10 to 20 repetitions” Lauren Labeth, LCSW, told the Gladney reFRAMED host Emily Morehead, LPC on season 2, episode 1 of Gladney reFRAMED. By using a child’s natural need for play therapists and parents can teach and connect with the child. During this episode, Lauren shared the benefits of play therapy or Theraplay and delivered on the promise of reFRAMED podcasts to educate, encourage, and inspire parents and professionals. 

At the beginning of the episode, Emily asks Lauren to give the listeners and watchers a little background on herself. Lauren tells the audience that she is a misplaced Texan living in Oklahoma. She originally thought that she wanted to teach Kindergarten, but soon realized that she didn’t like to work with big groups of little kids. Instead of becoming a teacher, Lauren has become a licensed social worker and she has her own private practice that offers play therapy for all ages. Speaking about her job, Lauren said “I got a master’s to play with play-dough and I love it. I get to use my work skills at home with my daughter.”

What is Play Therapy or Theraplay?

Theraplay or play therapy, as the name implies, is a combination of therapy and play. It is play that involves close proximity, touch, and eye contact. Play therapy is used to help children and caregivers develop a strong attachment. According to the Theraplay website,

 “Strong attachment between the child and the important adults in their life has long been believed to be the basis of lifelong good mental health as well as the mainstay of resilience in the face of adversity. Modern brain research and the field of neuroscience have shown that attachment is the way in which children come to understand, trust, and thrive in their world.” 

As I watched this video and thought back to my childhood, I can see how my strong attachment to my parents has benefited me in my life. One of the major ways that it has blessed my life is through my ability to attach to others. I can deeply care and attach to many people. However, I also have people in my life who struggle with attachment to their parents and others due to the neglect or abuse that they endured at a young age. Many of these people struggle with mental health and resilience. The way that we are raised has an impact on our brain and, unless corrected, it can influence many of our thought processes and relationships for the rest of our lives. 

At this point, you may be wondering what types of play can help children, teens, and/or adults to develop a connection. First, it needs to be noted that each Theraplay session is completed with a licensed therapist, at least one parent, and the child. This allows the child to have one-on-one attention from the parent and develop a strong relationship with him or her. If the parent is uncomfortable or unsure of the play involved in that session, then the therapist can show him or her by example and work with both the parent and the child to become comfortable with the process. 

As far as activities, Lauren shared some of her favorites with Emily. They included things like competitive activities (she especially loved these activities with naturally competitive dads), cotton ball hockey, spinning a Tic Tac in a cup, passing around a silly face, making someone laugh, creating a special handshake, feeding your child, painting nails, brushing hair, and bubble volleyball. Each of these activities and the many others in the Therplay program allow the parent and the child the opportunity to work together and develop an attachment for each other. One of the goals of Theraplay is to challenge the child in a way that he or she can also be successful. This allows the child to come away feeling better about themselves and more attached to their parent.

Why is Play Therapy Important?

As stated at the beginning of this article, play teaches a child a lot faster than a school classroom-type lesson that is simply repetitive. So much faster, in fact, that I wonder why play is not included more in the classroom setting. One of the reasons why play teaches quicker than other ways is because children become more free during play. Studies have shown that kids will listen for about 12 words before they start to shut off and stop listening. However, becoming engaged in a play session helps a child open up and become focused.  

Another great point that was brought up during the podcast was when Lauren said that due to the nature of survival, play should be seen as a necessary part of development. Play has been around since the dawn of time. Whether that play comes from drawing in the sand with a stick, kicking a can, or shooting a ball into a basket, humans have been finding some way to play for a long time. The sheer fact that play has continued to be an integral part of life and development shows the necessity of play for humans. 

How Does Play Therapy Help?

If you are wondering how play helps, think back to elementary school when you first learned how to play Simon Says. In the game, one person acts as Simon and gives direction to the rest of the class. As he or she gives directions he or she may say “Simon Says” before giving a command.. The class should only follow directions that have been given after hearing “Simon Says”t. If they do not listen correctly or fail to recognize that a direction is given without that phrase, then they are out of the game or sent back to the start of a line. This game provides more than fun entertainment. It is a way to teach children how to listen to directions closely.  

Similarly, Therplay allows a parent and a child to play together and learn together. As a mother blows a bubble back and forth with her child they are looking at and focusing on the same thing. This helps them to develop a connection because as they focus on the same thing, they are also focusing on each other. Children who struggle with attachment issues need to be seen and understood, but often they do not realize that they have that need in the first place or they lack the skills that are necessary to express it.

Sadly, many children who experience trauma or loss at an early age are developmentally and emotionally younger than their actual age. His or her brain has not developed the connections necessary to create strong attachments in their life and there are gaps in the brain patterns that need to be corrected. Participating in Theraplay allows children to develop connections and fix the gaps. It allows a child to learn how to say where their boundaries are and start to express the needs that he or she has. When a parent can say, “I see you” to a child, the child can begin to heal.

In today’s busy time it can be easy to become overly involved in life’s tasks and it can be challenging to stop focusing on the to-do list long enough to play. Unfortunately, unless a child’s playtime is on the to-do list, he or she can take a back seat. I have seen this in my own life as I work and struggle to finish my college degree while fulfilling the many other demands of life. My daughter has come up to me and asked me to play with her and I am grateful for her ability to recognize her needs. Since she happens to love Barbies and I don’t, it is a challenge to step away from the tasks of life. However, on the days when I do take time to play Barbies and create a story with her, she is so appreciative and I know she can see how much I love her. Developing attachment is necessary for all kids. They need to know that people care about them. 

Why Would I Pay to Play?

This was a very interesting question that Emily asked Lauren. When a parent and a child can play at home, why would they pay to play at a therapy office? Lauren had a lot of great answers to this question. She acknowledged that it does take time and money, but that it is so valuable. She mentioned that one family came to the first appointment and thought she was crazy, but over time they have seen the improvement in connection with their child. Now they keep coming because it is working. In addition to that glowing recommendation, the usual therapy time is relatively short at 15 to18 sessions long. The type of play and therapy that is learned in a Theraplay session can teach a parent how to listen to and reach a child that can be combative and who struggles to feel attached to that parent. 

The therapy sessions are one hour and they are initially spent with one-on-one time between a child and a parent with direction from the therapist. Eventually, the sessions begin to include more and more family members until the last few sessions where the entire family comes. This allows the child to develop an attachment to parents and siblings. Developing these attachments improves the entire household because relationships become less combative and more connected. 

One of the best ways that this therapy helps the home become more connected is by teaching parents to change the way they discipline. It is common for a parent to discipline a child in a correcting manner that produces fear and anxiety in the child. For example, a child may not want to do their homework. When an adoptive or foster parent asks the child to do his or her homework he or she may respond by saying, “You aren’t my real mom. You can’t tell me what to do.” The natural instinct of a parent would be to become angry and to correct the child for what he or she is saying. However, using Theraplay techniques the parent would change his or her response. Instead of correcting the child, a mother would find ways of connecting with the child so that the child would know that she is the mother. 

Be in the Moment

A common theme throughout the podcast was that Theraplay helped parents be in the moment with their child. Adults have many concerns and those concerns can often crowd their thoughts and make it difficult for them to focus on the moment. Taking time away from those concerns and focusing on the child in a setting away from home under the guidance of a therapist can help a parent be in the moment. He or she can focus and “see” the child in a way that develops a deep connection.

The hosts of the podcast discussed different ways parents can be in the moment and show a child he or she is being seen. Tickling is a great example of this. A parent goes to tickle a child and he or she starts to laugh. It may reach a point that the child is no longer laughing because he or she enjoys the tickling. Instead, the tickling may be hurting or irritating him or her. A child that cannot express this in words will usually show that there is a change in how he or she feels about the tickling by changing their laughter. When a parent learns to listen to the child’s change in laughter and stops tickling when it irritates or hurts, he or she is in the moment and being respectful of the child’s needs. 

Theraplay is a great resource for foster and adoptive parents and their children. In the show notes, there is a great quote that shows the importance of play. “Play disarms fear, builds connectedness, teaches social skills, teaches competencies for life.” This quote by Dr. Karen Purvis was used during the podcast, and Dr. Purvis’ book is linked below. Disarming the fear in a child that has experienced trauma allows them to learn quicker and easier. This is an amazing tool for parents to use in developing an attachment with their child. For more information about these services, please refer to the links and resources below. 

Gladney Adoptive Parents Training

Learn more about Theraplay over at The Gladney Center for Adoption. Lauren has recorded a training video that is available for the Gladney Center for Adoption adoptive parents. The training is called Making Play Your Most Valuable Tool. It can be accessed by logging onto your MyGladney account, selecting trainings, and then searching by the training name.

Links and Resources for Play Therapy

  • A book that teaches about “Parenting with Theraplay: Understanding Attachment and How to Nurture a Closer Relationship with Your Child” by Helen Rodwell.
  • Lauren’s website and email.
  • Website to find a Theraplay provider
  • Book recommendation from Lauren Labeth, “The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family” by Karen B. Purvis, David B. Cross, Wendy Lyons Sunshine