Why Play is an Essential Therapeutic Tool

Neurobiology (the physical wiring of the brain) – where do we begin? This is one of my favourite topics because it is the foundation of everything – behaviour, relationships, emotions, impulse control, learning, etc. As humans, we are social animals who are wired to play in order to learn and explore the world, relationships with others and ourselves. Unfortunately, in our society, we have been witnessing a decline in free play with over-scheduled kids, smaller backyards, increased screen time, reduced recess time and a significant rise in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

In this blog post, we’re going to discuss why play is an essential therapeutic tool, the benefit of play for building healthy brains and improving behaviour, and explore how Play Therapy works on a neurobiological level. 

Why is Play so beneficial?

In order for children to develop the area of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking, children need to have rich play experiences that stimulate all of their senses. The foundation of play helps the brain wire from the ‘bottom-up’ – from the lower regions of brainstem (physiological responses, need for safety and security), to the limbic system (emotional centre, relationships, social functioning, need for connection) and finally to the cerebral cortex (the higher section of the brain involved in learning, cause and effect thinking and impulse control.) Healthy play is a naturally mindful activity that helps develop mindsight (self-understanding). It is spontaneous, in the moment and seeks to heal, explore and self-regulate. 

“The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways”

Panksepp

How Does Play Affect the Brain?

  1. Play helps lower Cortisol (the stress hormone), increases Dopamine (the pleasure/reward chemical), Oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and GABA (the calmer of the nervous system)

  2. Play causes changes in the Prefrontal Cortex that help wire the brain’s executive control system, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans, solving problems, and supporting whole-brain integration. A well-integrated brain is considered a healthy brain – where all the various parts can pass messages to each other and can work as a united whole – using the language/sensations from the body (‘felt sense’), the emotional and memory systems, the amygdala (flight, fight, freeze activation), and the high order learning functions.

  3. Play increases whole-brain integration through physical movement, creative self-expression and the practice of self-regulation

  4. Play integrates left-brain regions (logical, analytical, emotional language, personal narrative) with the right brain regions (creativity, sensations, expression). Play helps children let their filter down in the conscious, verbal, rigid left side of the brain to express their inner emotions (right side of the brain)

  5. Play engages lower brain regions through movement, affect regulation, emotional involvement, creating their own sense of safety and predictability through control and choice, and building/creating physically ‘safe’ worlds. This repetitive process then feedbacks emotional and sensory content to the brain to start building new neural patterns – essentially rewriting their personal story.

  6. Play is super effective thanks to brain plasticity. In play, trying out different roles, scripts, personal narratives, alternative endings, exploring limits over time and through repetition can help build new brain connections which help transform the working model of self (our beliefs about who we are, what people think of us, how the world is – our self-concept).

Play Therapy and the Brain

In trauma, neurons that are stimulated wrongly connect to each other and can stay fused. This faulty connection can allow for the trauma to persist and create disruption in children’s lives (in the form of behaviours and emotional-social functioning). Play therapy can help correct the ‘faulty wiring’ by offering alternative reframing and inputs into the brain which help physically form new pathways. Play can create these new neural pathways to help the damaged synapses recover and allows for healthy attunement (to self and others), neural integration (better whole-brain functioning), development of healthy attachment (improved relationship functioning), development of resiliency (as an outcome of nervous system becoming more regulated and brain working as a more united whole) and an increased sense of wellbeing (life satisfaction).

“What fires together wires together” – for better or for worse 

As therapists, the aim of play therapy is to build a positive and consistent relationship through which the neural rewiring can occur. The calm, patient, empathic, reflective techniques used by a therapist supports the mirror neuron system in children, the way our social brains communicate with each other through our physiological attunement to one another (more on this in a future post), to mimic the same demeanor. 

Over time this ‘felt sense’ of mindfulness, acceptance, attunement, and therapeutic limit setting, allows the child to become more patient and accepting of themselves, as the lower parts of their brain (brainstem and limbic system) and right brain, process and learn to make sense of stressful and traumatic events that may be affecting their current functioning. 

As social animals, we have the power to literally help others rewire their brains! That is a position of great responsibility and my passion is to support parents, educators and mental health professionals to grow in their understanding of this process, thus helping our world become more child-centred, brain-wise and trauma-informed.

Working Together We Can Build Better Brains!

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