Most children can't plop down on a chair and express their inner thoughts and feelings. Younger kids usually don't have that type of cognitive development and insight.(Yes, I know some of you would argue many adults lack the necessary skills as well, but that's a whole different conversation). The good thing is children usually have not developed complex coping mechanisms to the extent that they can completely hide their feelings. That's where the play comes in. Whether role playing with dolls, battling with soldiers, or drawing pictures, children usually project their thoughts and feelings into these activities. These symbolic activities give us a peek into what children are thinking and feeling. Through play, we can help children identify and express their feelings and assist them in how to better handle stressful situations.
Almost all children want to be adults, or at least want the "perks" of being an adult (and most adults reminisce about the simplicity of childhood...ahhh, such is life). Children can experience a lack of control in their life that can manifest in a number of ways including anxiety, anger, and sadness. Play therapy is unstructured and with the exception of a few ground rules (i.e., office rules, safety rules), the child is in control. Children love this part of play therapy. Children spend most of their day either in school or at home where there are rules, so the idea of an experience where they make the decisions is culture shock. Children are completely in charge and have almost all of the power in the room. With this comes improved self-esteem, an increase in perceived control, and decreases in emotional dysregulation and anxiety.
Play therapy also allows for the therapist to experience the child in a social setting. Many times the child does not even realize a therapy session is happening, they think they are playing with an older friend. Through play, not only do we get a glimpse of inner thoughts and feelings, but also of how the child interacts in a relationship. This can be very helpful, especially for children struggling socially. The therapist can express feelings that provide insight and education about the child's behavior. For example, if the child is aggressive or uses hurtful words then I might say, "Ouch, you must be really angry if you are using that type of language." Over time, the child becomes more aware of their own behavior and that feelings are a two-way street; both people experience them.
Parents also play a role in play therapy. Usually what happens in the session stays between the therapist and the child, with a few exceptions (e.g. safety, abuse). In some instances, the child may want something to remain confidential, but it might be very beneficial for the information to be shared with the family. In this situation, usually the therapist talks with the child about meeting with the parents and how it might be helpful. In my experience, most children are hesitant but open to a meeting with parents. However, if the child is not ready to share certain feelings and there is not the potential for imminent harm, then I respect the child's wishes and shelf that conversation for a later session.
Play therapy allows for a relationship to develop between the child and the therapist. Trust, warmth, and safety are nurtured as the relationship grows. The child gains acceptance that the world is daunting, but they now have the support and hope (within themselves and through others) to navigate whatever obstacles come their way. I have been practicing play therapy for over 8 years, and I am still amazed by how issues can be addressed without actually talking about the issue. Play therapy has a nuance that is unique to itself.