Talking through Symbolism and Metaphors in Play Therapy

By: Paige S. Spangler, BFA, MS, LCPC Elliott Counseling Group

Let’s consider the following child-unfriendly assumption from M.B. Strauss’s book “No-talk Therapy for Children and Adolescents”: “Talking is the most natural way of exchanging information.” For adults talking feels easy and is often what we do first to express ourselves. For children this mode of expression isn’t ideal; for them talking might occur but it doesn’t best express their world and how they feel. I personally believe that feelings lie deeper than works. In so many ways children are able to speak through their hearts and their spirits more naturally and play or art can convey this meaning more effectively. 


There is often a pressure on children to talk about problems. In play therapy, it is important to drop this agenda. Talking will likely occur in these sessions, but it means that when thee is talking it will be accompanied in a very different way. The focus of child-centered play therapy is to allow the child to choose their form of communication; it can be through using cars, blocks, animal figures, painting, dance, puppets, etc. Their language is play and it is our job as play therapists to provide the most beneficial medium for the child to express their wishes, fears, worries, and sorrow. I’d like to share some examples of play that have happened in my play therapy sessions (some of the details have been altered to protect the confidentiality of the client):

  • Child chooses drawing to express a symbolic story. The child uses symbolism of super heroes, space travel and destroyed planets to express feelings related to changes in the family. The child states that the main character has to find a new home after its home planet get blown up.
  • Child recovering from a family member’s death chooses sand tray play. The child chooses a female figurine, buries her int he sand in the sand tray, and then shows a scorpion animal figure walking over the burial sand mount. The child uses this play for a few sessions and then changes the focus to other play.
  • Child is having changes in the family that are difficult to manage. Child chooses doll play to express feelings. The child sets up a dollhouse and establishes the family that lives there. The child uses a dog figure to reject a new family member by barking at it and kicking it out of the home.

These examples show how each child found symbols and different story forms to express their world. They found a character that they related to and allowed for that character to act our their wishes or to express their feelings in dramatic and profound ways. Words could not convey these messages this powerfully. When children are able to express these ideas and feelings they are able to gain some freedom from their worries while also building up confidence. They have been seen and heard in their session and their story has been shown to have great value. This leads to alleviation, integration, and processing of difficult material and consequently creates more self-enhancing behaviors.


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