I’m excited to introduce Cynthia who I have been supervising through her RCT-C hours. I have learned many things from her in describing the many skills and methods she uses as a play therapist in working with children, particularly in trauma work. In the work I do as a music therapist I am aware there are many ways in which music and play are similar and why they play such a crucial role in becoming the safe place for young people to heal.

Cynthia Manley MA, CCC, RCT-C

Cynthia Manley is the owner of Cynthia Manley Children’s Counselling in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Cynthia has a Master of Arts degree in Professional Mental Health Counselling from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is a Registered Counselling Therapist Candidate with the Nova Scotia College of Counselling Therapists, and has completed all 180 hours of training toward certification as a Play Therapist with the Canadian Association for Play Therapy. She is also a Yoga Calm™ Certified Youth Instructor. Cynthia has recently completed basic training in Theraplay, EMDR, and The Oaklander Model. Cynthia wrote a chapter titled, “ Less Zoom More Zen: Blending Mindfulness and Yoga into Virtual Group Therapies for the book Using Teleplay in Virtual Care. Her play therapy space was featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of Playground magazine.

Child-Centered Play Therapy is at the heart of Cynthia’s approach to counselling. Much of her work with children and families is influenced by her 25 years of work as a Special Education Teacher before she became a counsellor. In that setting, Cynthia learned the importance of watching, waiting, and cultivating curiosity in her relationships with clients. Cynthia believes strongly in building authentic relationships with children and follows their lead in therapy, while integrating Attachment, Mindfulness, EMDR, Yoga, and Expressive Arts therapies throughout the therapeutic process.

What is play therapy? The answer to that question is not as simple as it might seem. It’s probably most useful to start by explaining what is not Play Therapy.

Play Therapy is not playing Fortnight with your child. It’s not going into your child’s room and joining in the activities they are doing. It’s not playing hockey in the driveway. While all of those activities are fun and can create joy and connection with children, they are not the same as therapeutic play. The differences lie in the purpose and intention of each.

We play with children to have fun. Play lets children engage their creative, problem solving, and social skills all at the same time. Natural, free-time play is vital for children’s development. Play Therapy offers all of those benefits, but with specific goals in mind. The play therapy room gives children a voice using play. It’s not just about using creativity and problem solving and creating social connections. Play Therapy is about change and about healing. It uses play as a tool to help children process experiences, and to see their worlds and people in their orbit in new ways. In his book, Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, Garry Landreth wrote that, “Play is the child’s symbolic language of self-expression and can reveal (a) what the child has experienced; (b) reactions to what was experienced; (c) feelings about what was experienced; (d) what the child wishes, wants, or needs; and (e) the child’s perception of self.”

Play Therapy is deliberate, purposeful and specific. It may look like “just playing,” but Play Therapists are using several skill-sets all at the same time, and everything they do has a purpose. Play Therapy, like just playing, can be directive or non-directive, but the similarity stops there. Play Therapy has a theoretical orientation behind it. It has a philosophy. Depending on that theoretical base, Play Therapy has specific toys and materials, and a definitive role for the adult. There is Jungian, Adlerian, Synergetic, Child-Centered play therapy, and that is just a few. Play Therapy can involve creative interventions like art, music and dance, or it can include using puppets or figurines in a sand tray. Play Therapists choose their materials and modalities with care.

Some Play Therapists provide a prop or a prompt for children to work with. Others include psychoeducation or bibliotherapy as part of the play. Some Play therapists teach some skills to children, or teach skills to parents and children together during sessions. Sometimes Play Therapy involves lots of words and language, other times no one talks during Play Therapy.

How can Play Therapy strengthen relationships with children and caregivers? Doesn’t it have to be done by a trained therapist? The answer to that is yes and no. A trained Play Therapist brings skill and experience to therapy, but there is one particular technique many of them use, that caregivers can weave into their own interactions with children.

Many children struggle with emotional regulation, or being able to manage uncomfortable feelings without acting in ways that are unsafe or challenging for caregivers. Adults need to be able to validate children’s feelings, communicate limits using few words, allow children time to process and offer choices. One way to do this is with a play therapy technique called the A-C-T model, developed by Dr. Garry Landreth. It has three steps: Acknowledge the feeling, Communicate the limit, and Target the choice. Keep in mind that behaviour change takes time. Any new intervention takes several weeks before you will start to see a difference. Caregivers need to stay consistent and know that change comes gradually.

In the A-C-T model, when caregivers acknowledge feelings, they name the emotion they observe or guess that their child is feeling. This helps children to feel heard and validated, which is one of the foundational goals of play therapy. Children might correct adults and name a different emotion that is present for them. This promotes emotional literacy and enhances relationships. Naming observed emotions might sound something like this: “I see that you are mad,” or, “You are angry because you want to play with that right now.” It is helpful to keep the number of words to a minimum and allow children time to process before moving on to the next step.

“Communicate the limit,” refers to the process of setting behavioural boundaries for children. It is natural and important, of course, for children to have uncomfortable feelings, including feelings like anger, but they need to express them in ways that are safe and appropriate to the situation. After acknowledging their child’s emotions, caregivers can let them know that their specific behaviour is not acceptable. Examples might be: “It looks you are feeling really upset, but it’s not okay to ________ (insert whatever the behaviour is: hit, kick, throw things, swear or use hurtful words).” It is important to be clear with children that we love them, but that their behaviour is not acceptable; the child’s personhood is separate from their actions.

“Targeting the choice” means that caregivers need to be explicit when they communicate what behaviours are acceptable in place of behaviours that are not safe or not allowed. They also need to give children some choices. Children feel empowered when they have a sense of control. Young children don’t get to have a lot of control, and that is right for their developmental level. When they are upset, it can help if they feel they have choices. It’s best for adults to avoid power struggles with children whenever they can. It is most helpful to offer just two choices; more can make things feel overwhelming. Caregivers might say something like, “You can choose some different words, or take a break right now,” or, “Would you like to pick up your toys first or your books first?” “You can get in the car in one minute or in three minutes.”

Play Therapy is a great option for working with children in counselling, as it allows them to work with clinicians in ways that make sense to them, using their own language, which is play. Caregivers can bring some of the wisdom of Play Therapy into their relationships with children by using Landreth’s A-C-T model. Besides being a useful way to manage difficult behavior, it incorporates positive relationship building elements such as validating emotions, promoting emotional literacy, teaching emotional regulation, and building interpersonal connection, which are all some of the most basic underpinnings of a play therapist’s job.

Photo of an office interior. Chairs and tables are arranged along the walls of the room.
Photo of an office interior. A play area, along with art supplies, has been set up in the back right corner of the room.
Photo of an office interior. A landscape mural is visible on the back wall.

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