At Orchard Fostering, we offer a wide range of additional services to support our carers on their fostering journeys. One of those internal supports is access to play therapy, a psychotherapeutic method used to help children explore their emotions and thoughts through play.

We spoke to our play therapist, Sabrina, about all the aspects of play therapy. Read on to find out everything you ever wanted to know about play therapy.

What is play therapy?

Sabrina: Play therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach used to help children explore their lives and freely express repressed thoughts and emotions through play.  Play therapy is based on the premise that play is a child’s first language and toys are their method of communicating.

Play therapy is usually recommended for children aged between 3-11 years of age, but adaptations to tasks and therapeutic focus can be made for children over 11 years of age, to facilitate their engagement.

What is the aim of play therapy?

Sabrina: Children do not have the cognitive ability to engage in talk therapy, like adults do. For many children in fostering services, who have experienced early life trauma, these cognitive facilities were not developed at the time they experienced their trauma.  This means that for many children, they cannot verbally name what their experiences have been, however they can naturally play them out.

Play therapy aims to provide children with an opportunity to explore their past and present using a medium that is natural to them, child centred and easy to engage in.

Play therapy provides children who have experienced trauma with an opportunity to ‘play out’ memories and past experiences.  Through this, they can make sense of their experiences in a way that is natural to them, and, most importantly, not overwhelming.  The role of the therapist is to provide them with space to process these memories and remain completely attuned to the child.

When should play therapy be considered?

Sabrina: There is no specific timeline as to when play therapy should be recommended as an intervention. Many factors are explored when looking at a play therapy recommendation.

A primary consideration for children in foster care is whether the child is secure within their fostering placement and if their care plan is indicating that they will be remaining in the placement for the foreseeable future. This is important as the child may need a supportive adult that they trust to support them outside of therapy if needed. Other considerations are:

  • what behaviour is the child presenting with
  • how ready is the child to engage in play therapy
  • has the child previously engaged in direct work or other therapeutic support
  • will detaching from the foster carer cause undue distress for the child

All these issues are explored with the fostering link worker and the child’s allocated social worker. A plan is made to determine what type of support will best suit the child and their individual needs.

What is the role of the foster carer in play therapy?

Sabrina: Like any intervention with a child, the foster carer has a vital role in supporting the young person.

Prior to the intervention, the foster carer is asked to complete an assessment form. This explores the strengths the child has and the difficulties they are experiencing. This provides an indication of what areas (such as social, emotional, behavioural) the child is struggling the most with. The therapist will then meet with the foster carer to discuss the outcome of the assessment form, the reasons for referral and obtain any further necessary information.

At this stage, the foster carer is advised of the play therapy process and together with the therapist, will identify the therapeutic goals. The foster carer then signs the confidentiality agreement, and the foster carer is aware that the child’s discussions of their therapeutic process are child led, and how to support the child with any questions they have. The play therapist and the foster carer maintain contact with each other after/between sessions.

A review meeting between the therapist and foster carers will occur after the tenth session. Prior to this review occurring, the foster carer is sent a new assessment form to complete. At the review meeting, the therapist provides feedback on this, and a comparison is made to the initial assessment form. Furthermore, the foster carer is asked to outline any changes they have noticed that may have developed since the intervention began. This assists the therapist in assessing progress in relation to the therapeutic goals. This is important given the foster carer is the person who spends the majority of time with the child, and is able to see the impact of what’s being done in the play room working in the child’s ‘real world.’

The therapist will also provide the foster carer with information around the themes that have developed in the therapeutic process. All developments and progress are discussed, and the therapeutic goals are reviewed and adapted, if necessary. At this stage, a collaborative decision is made as to whether to extend or end the intervention. If the latter is agreed upon, the child will be advised of same and a child-centred closing of the intervention will occur.

What does an average play therapy session look like?

Sabrina: A play therapy session is between 40-45 minutes long and occurs on a weekly basis. Play therapy sessions vary on an individual basis and will be dependent upon where the child is at in their therapeutic process.

The first session focuses on helping the child become comfortable in the room. The therapist also asks the child to complete a child friendly assessment tool, which is similar to the one completed by foster carers. The therapist will then explain to the child the reasons they have been referred for an intervention. The confidentiality of therapy is then explained to the child and they are invited to sign the confidentiality agreement.

What kind of activities are used in play therapy?

The mediums used in play therapy are

  • Art
  • Crafts
  • Play-Doh
  • Clay
  • Sandtrays
  • Role-play
  • Movement
  • Therapeutic stories
  • Small world play

Play therapy is non-directive, so the focus of the session is usually directed by the child. However, if the therapist feels that a specific therapeutic activity will be of benefit, the therapist will set this up prior to the session and the child will most likely engage in this first.

How long does play therapy last?

Sabrina: Like all forms of therapy, play therapy is adaptable and will focus on different issues noted by the foster carers and other professionals involved. How long a child needs to engage in play therapy will be dependent on their engagement. The goals and therapeutic focus may vary throughout the process, and this all depends on the child’s behaviour and engagement.

Play therapy does usually not just occur for an initial twelve-week cycle.  Most children tend to only become more comfortable with the process from session six onwards.  Most of the time in sessions prior to session six is spent adapting to and exploring the room, becoming familiar with the therapist, exploring each tool within the room, and developing trust. Six sessions is the equivalent of 4.5 hours of relationship development, so in the grand scheme of things, this is not a lot of time!

How is play therapy regulated?

Like all therapeutic training, play therapists engage in CPD, receive regular supervision and are subject to clinical and ethical standards set by the regulating body. This ensures work is monitored and overseen, and the therapist had an opportunity to explore the child, the therapeutic developments and process in detail and ensure the child is receiving the most support possible.

Like other therapies, the training for play therapy is experiential, meaning that when the therapist is training, they engage in activities within the different mediums as noted above.  This ensures the therapist is aware of how it feels to be the client in the situation and how powerful the mediums, reflective language, and right to left brain linking can be.

How do Orchard Fostering facilitate play therapy?

Orchard Fostering has a specific room within our offices specifically for play therapy sessions.

At Orchard Fostering, we’re invested in building brighter futures for all our foster children and families – so if you’re interested in finding out more, contact us today.