Using Games in Child Therapy

Imagine, Sophie returns to the waiting room and tells her mother how much fun she just had with her therapist. When asked what she just did in therapy Sophie reports that she played games. At that point, Sophie’s mother begins to wonder what she just paid for! Let me explain. Games are a wonderful way to engage children. Therapists use both traditional and therapeutic games to help children identify social and emotional skills, role-play these skills, problem solve, improve their attitude toward school, peers, and family, increase motivation for life tasks such as learning, and enhance creativity. Playing games teaches identification and expression of feelings, how to identify needs, how to formulate requests and demands, and how to listen and communicate effectively. Playing games can help children develop a sense of responsibility, a positive attitude, creative thinking, build self-esteem, appropriate assertiveness, self-confidence, a sense of self and self-identity, and conflict resolution skills. Gameplay encourages children who are fearful and reluctant to talk to become comfortable, and after a couple of sessions, the therapist can begin to draw the child into a conversation and therapeutic dialog.

The type of games a child chooses tells you something about their maturity, confidence, and personality. A nine-year-old child that picks Candy Land, for example, may be demonstrating social immaturity, may be communicating a lack of confidence, or low self-esteem. In psychotherapy, games can be used to resolve issues at an unconscious level and behavioral therapists and cognitive therapists use games didactically to provide learning opportunities, provide information, role play, and skills training. Many older children are reluctant to engage in the playroom and are either unable or unwilling to engage in a conversation with the therapist. One of the values of many therapeutic games is that they immediately create relevance. A game can inform the child what therapy is about, how therapy can be used, provide an immediate understanding of a problem, and how to address it. At the very least, the therapist has a tool, something concrete, observable, and real, to address the client’s issues.

In summary, gameplay orients the child toward therapeutic interactions, assists in building a relationship with the therapist, helps identify strengths, weaknesses, and issues, and provides opportunities to intervene. So, if you see Sophie’s mom, you can let her know that a lot of great work took place while they were playing those games!