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Arts Therapy with Children

"There is an old Sanskrit word, līlā, which means play. Richer than our word, it means… the play of creation, destruction and re-creation, the folding and unfolding of the cosmos.”

Steven Nachmanovitch, from his book 'Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art'

I read this quote many years ago, in the first week of my postgraduate training in Arts Therapy (Drama Therapy) at the University of the Witwatersrand. It caught my eye and my heart: something in me knowing it to be deeply important. Since then, I have become increasingly aware of the truth of these words - of the intricacies of play and the potency of transformation it can bring about in therapy.

This is what this blog post is all about: the richness of play in Arts Therapy practices, particularly Drama Therapy, and what it can offer to children.

When children enter therapy, it is often with some trepidation. What will therapy be like? What will the therapist be like?


In a therapy modality like Drama Therapy, because the power of play is fully embraced, it can quickly soften this trepidation. Play is a language familiar to children and immediately establishes the therapy space as one which is centred on the child, their needs, and their expression.


Why is play so potent for therapy with children? 

Children live so much in their feeling worlds that are not yet governed by fully conscious thought or reflection. Rather, children’s feeling worlds are imbued with images and stories that become visible through their play. This is how children navigate their worlds and make sense of challenges (both internal and external) that may be facing them. This is where the wisdom of līlā emerges: it allows for children to find creation, recreation and processing of their internal ‘cosmos’ - their internal worlds.


In my therapy practice, I facilitate a space where the child-client has ownership over their play in therapy. The session begins with me helping the child ‘arrive’ in the space and feel comfortable (processes to warm up the body and imagination and help them bridge into the world of feelings).


Thereafter, I can invite the child to lead: “What would you like to play today?”. Here they can follow the form of play that draws their attention - sandtray with miniature toys, soft toys, art materials, picture cards, dress-up with hats or props. There is no pressure on the child to ‘make their play make sense’ to me. I am with them in their play-world and they can lead. For example, the child saying: “I’ll be the cross elephant, you’ll be the quiet mouse hiding in the cave”. From this position of being within their play, I get to understand what might be going on for them in their worlds. From this understanding, appropriate reflections and interventions can be offered to the child when it is appropriate.


From here I can invite slightly more therapist-directed play (if the child is needing extra containment, if there is a particular recurring theme, and so on). This could take the form of a story told around a particular theme, encouraging a child to take on a role they may not usually, or creating tangible, meaningful objects to work more deeply with significant moments in their play. Throughout, the child knows that this is a space completely focussed on their needs, their experience and their process.


What does play actually look like in the therapy session? 

Well, this is completely dependent on the child, their internal world and their play preferences. Sometimes it looks like a child (who is navigating their parents’ divorce) spontaneously enacting a story of family separation through puppet characters, voicing the feelings through the character that they are unable to voice themselves. Other times it looks like creating a safe den or shelter for frightened creatures to be protected from a scary thunderstorm. At times, play supports a child to move from repeatedly enacting violence and aggression through toys in a sandtray, to enacting a rally for child protection using these same toys. Play can take the form of a goodbye ritual for a child who has lost a family member; poetry or song creation for the shy child who cannot speak in class, and so much more. Just like līlā, play is infinite.


In these ways, play allows the whole child to be present: the parts of themselves that are needing to create, the parts needing destruction, the parts needing recreation. As play is relational, the child’s internal ‘cosmos’ can be folded and unfolded through the therapy relationship too, which can bring deeply supportive relational shifts for the child.


Arts Therapy can hold the space for the child’s creative language of play to deepen and strengthen: letting go of what is needing to be shed, supporting what is needing to be recreated, and nourishing the intricate and magical cosmos that lies within.


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