Part 3: 2 Reasons why the brain likes play (AKA: What you need to remember when wonder’why am I doing this again’?)

It seems like magic sometimes.

You show up, you practice your play therapy techniques, and your little clients GET better.

BUT- it’s not magic- the success of play therapy is based in the science of interpersonal neurobiology.

So we now know that it’s okay not to know (Part 1) and also have a firm understanding of nondirective play therapy and how it relates to working in the sand with kids (Part 2).

But NOW, how do we know the WHY behind play therapy.

heart and brain that dance, concept of physical wellbeing

When we work with our child clients in a way that feels comfortable to them-like through play- we communicate to them that they are understood.

Until about age 11 when children develop abstract reasoning skills, they live in a right-shifted world, where they are able to understand the meaning of things and relationships even when words aren’t available.

So, when we, as play therapists, meet our clients where they are through sandtray therapy and other forms of play therapy, we are letting them know “I see you, I get it, I’m here” in a way that their brains are already wired to most readily understand.

Through this non-verbal method of sandtray therapy, we don’t have to jump the hurdle of crossing into the left brain where language lays. Instead, we can just come along beside and be WITH them as they are working through their difficulties.

But you ask- How does my presence and working with them in the sandtray/play therapy room allow for my clients to get better?

This answer lies within two key concepts:

1.Social baseline theory

We know, through many social psychology studies, that our brains detect obstacles and fear as greater when we are alone.  Our brains read objects or events as less fearful just by simply having a person next to us AND also even LESS scary when we have a person next to us with whom we have a close relationship.

Think of that child who you love seeing and he’s had a hard, hard life. Many small and large traumas throughout his young life.  With you by his side, tracking and letting him know you are there, his brain will be able to revisit or process those scary times in a way he would not have been able to just alone.

The result?

Your client gets better faster by increasing his emotional regulation and identifying this triggers.

Or more simply put: Play therapy worked. 

2.  Neuroception of Safety

Stephen Porges coined this term within his book about The Polyvagal Theory.  What the neurosception of safety states is that when person, such as the therapist, has a large window of tolerance, meaning that they are able to stay regulated and with a person, even in times of unrest, then the person who is having difficulties (such as a client) develops a larger window of tolerance.

The magic of the neurosception of safety is that our brain does this on a subconsicous level.  Our brains are ALWAYS scanning the environment for cues of safety or unrest.

If you have that same little boy who has been through all types of trauma, he is not going to readily be able to access and work through his feelings due to being in flight or fight mode more often than not.

However, once his brain (and body) detect that YOU are a safe person and that YOU area always the same, his brain then sends the message that it’s safe to open up to others and talk about even the hard things (Porges calls this the social engagement mode).

Given this information, know that EVEN if you had the exact right words to say and KNEW how to change the child’s cognition through words and the “right” technique, it wouldn’t matter if his brain says “nope, it’s not safe here.”

So, again, where is the most important work with so many of our kids?

It’s in the developing of the neurosception of safety. Because without that, no technique in the world will be effective.

Again, you show up, you play, you connect.

The result?

Your client gets better faster by increasing his emotional regulation and identifying this triggers.

Or more simply put: Play therapy worked. 

Of course, the science of interpersonal neurobiology is WAY more complex than these two concepts but you can use these to rest on when you get those nagging feelings of ‘why am I doing this again?’

What works for you when you have those nagging feelings?

Leave your answer in the comments below.