The Importance of Play in Elementary Schools

I was recently published in the International Journal of Play Therapy for my research done during my graduate work at the University of Saint Thomas. I focused my research on the effectiveness of using play activities during small group lessons to help improve appropriate classroom behaviors. I wish I could freely share my research here, but I think the IJPT wouldn’t appreciate that much. Please take some time to look for it though. The article title is Examining the Use of Play Activities to Increase Appropriate Classroom Behaviors. Below I have given you excerpts from the unedited version of my manuscript, including all the research I did on people who previously utilized play in schools.

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I’m hoping it inspires you to try just one play activity in your next lesson, or at least helps solidify what you are already doing. The importance of play in counseling and school, in general, is completely unparalleled.

Play as a Ray of Sunshine in the School Setting

Excerpt from my graduate manuscript (unedited version).

Current state and national standards expect children to meet or exceed necessary academic standards by the end of each grade (Blanco & Ray, 2011). Schools expect their students to make necessary academic gains despite children’s limited ability to communicate their needs. In an attempt to express their needs, children misbehave to gain control of unresolved emotional and social difficulties. Without the use of play to bridge concrete and abstract thoughts, a child may become overly frustrated with the stressors found in a typical classroom environment. These external stressors, along with other emotional factors, could result in classroom misbehaviors, such as verbal, motor, and passive off-task behaviors, as well as out-of-seat behaviors.

During the transition from pre-Kindergarten to Kindergarten classes, more focus is placed on academics than previously experienced by these students, which can bring about problematic changes in their external or internal behaviors within the classroom (Sink, Edwards, & Weir, 2007). Children with disruptive behaviors often present difficulties for their peers and teachers (Cochran, Cochran, Nordling, McAdam, & Miller, 2010). The pressure placed on teachers to ensure that all students succeed inhibits the time necessary to teach social skills, allow for developmental processing time, and provide appropriate activities, such as free-play.

Through play, children are given the opportunity to overcome emotional and social limitations that could potentially impede their academic achievement (Blanco & Ray, 2011). Thus, play can help children make a connection between their concrete understandings, the experiences learned and understood, and abstract events, such as thoughts and feelings (Landreth, Ray, & Bratton, 2009). Landreth et al. (2009) highlighted the importance of and contributors to effective play in a child’s life that Piaget placed in his developmental framework.

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Contributors to Effective Play

Many factors facilitate effective play for children. When play is presented in a safe, caring, and culturally sensitive environment, children can freely express themselves. This expression allows them to work on self-esteem and social anxieties without the fear of breaking rules or pleasing the teacher (Lawver & Blankenship, 2008). Due to the constraints necessary to promote and maintain acceptable behavior, a classroom environment often fails to provide the safe space in which children can work on self-esteem and social anxieties (Partin, Robertson, Maggin, Oliver, & Wehby, 2010). Therefore, children need a different, constraint-free environment where they can express feelings and act out experiences. The establishment of a positive, safe environment where students have the opportunity to express themselves helps support children’s behavior and academic needs (Partin et al., 2010).

Within a safe environment, a child needs to be actively involved in building a relationship with the teacher or school counselor as the play is occurring. The school counselor must employ empathy and acceptance throughout the interaction with the students while they play. Empathy on the part of the school counselor helps children feel understood and is another important factor facilitating play (Beaty-O’Ferrall, Green, & Hanna, 2010). The school counselor models empathy and acceptance and, in turn, teaches these skills to the children within the group. As children play in their group, they familiarize themselves with and relate to each other’s experiences, and begin to build empathy for one another.

Chang, Ritter, and Hayes (2005) described the importance of fostering a culturally sensitive environment within the playroom and modifying play language and toys for multicultural children. By exploring the child’s cultural identity, the counselor can develop an understanding of the child’s experiences and how these may influence current difficulties (Hinman, 2003). Play therapy is an effective tool that serves children from a variety of cultural backgrounds. If play therapists continue to educate themselves about the cultures in which they serve, they can develop a practice that effectively works with each client (Hinman, 2003).

In contrast to a play-centered environment, most classrooms minimize the importance of play. Due to an overall lack of attention to the emotional and social needs of children, many elementary-aged students are likely to become unhappy while at school, as they face their increasing emotional and social pain without support or guidance (Blanco & Ray, 2011; Cochran et al., 2010). Therefore, play therapy interventions may be particularly well-suited to addressing social, emotional, and behavioral concerns within a school setting.

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Effectiveness of Play Therapy for Improving Behavior and Social Skills

Children demonstrating social incompetence may display misbehaviors and emotional instabilities, thus making it harder to relate to their peers. Therefore, creative interventions must not only address social deficits, but behavioral ones as well. Through play therapy, toys become the child’s primary means of expression, giving the child the ability to project his feelings onto ambiguous stimuli. Trotter and Landreth (2003) describe toys as giving different symbolic meanings to each child’s struggles. Toys are a way for the child to express either negative or positive feelings. The child’s play is not make-believe, but will actually reflect his or her subjective reality (Dougherty & Ray, 2007). An intervention for children exhibiting misbehaviors is essential in helping to decrease the children’s need to externalize problematic behaviors, thereby helping to create more solid relationships with their peers (Ray, Blanco, Sullivan, & Holliman, 2009). When a child is encouraged to express painful feelings symbolically rather than behaviorally, the child will be more likely to demonstrate appropriate social skills (Trotter & Landreth, 2003).

Social competence is often used to describe a child’s social acceptance, social behaviors, the use and understanding of social skills, and the absence of problematic behaviors (McAloney & Stagnitti, 2009). Socially competent children are observed to play well with others by entering into play groups appropriately, initiating play with others, meeting age appropriate social goals, and responding appropriately to other children (McAloney & Stagnitti, 2009). However, LeGoff (2004) found that even children with more severe behavioral and emotional difficulties could develop social skills when they received social skills instruction within the context of stimulating play activities.

During play, children also develop and strengthen their understanding of appropriate social norms (McAloney & Stagnitti, 2009). McAloney and Stagnitti described pretend play as the child’s way to create imaginary situations that allow the child to test various social skills and their consequences. The researchers found that children who engage in pretend play were more likely to be considered socially component among adults and peers. The authors encouraged play therapists to develop more complex pretend play sequences that utilize conventional toys to assist children with their social peer play. The authors also promoted the use of unstructured toys during play therapy sessions, because this facilitates the development of problem solving skills, flexibility, and the ability to make connections to reality. Because play is emerging as a primary treatment for children, play therapists are becoming more equipped with skills necessary to engage and assist children in their behavioral, emotional, social, and academic development.

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Play Therapy within Schools

There is evidence to suggest that childhood disruptive behaviors lead to academic failure, which elevates the risk for depressed mood and continued misbehaviors (Cochran et al., 2010). Therefore, schools must work to implement effective interventions that address emotional and social concerns and disruptive behaviors, thereby increasing student academic achievement. Currently, disruptive behaviors that occur within the classroom are handled through various classroom management techniques, such as token reward systems, color-coded rating scales, punishments, or teacher-managed/directed interventions. Various researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness of the above techniques, yet these techniques are teacher-managed and based on extrinsic rewards; they do not facilitate personal growth within the child. These extrinsic rewards work to temporarily prevent undesirable behaviors, but appropriate behaviors, such as respect and responsibility, are not internalized. Therefore, as a student continues to misbehave despite the teacher’s efforts, the teacher may interact less with the student to avoid triggering or escalating the current misbehaviors (Partin et al., 2010). The child inadvertently learns that he or she is not worthy of respect, attention, or a caring relationship, which can directly affect the child’s developing self-worth.

Although the use of therapeutic play originated in clinical settings, research has documented that elementary school children respond positively to creative interventions used to in schools to promote academic, social, and emotional development (Green & Christensen, 2006). For example, Ray, Muro, and Schumann (2004) described a yearlong child-centered play therapy program provided to a group of 750 multicultural, multi-aged students in an elementary school. The study was broken into three components: play therapy, filial therapy for teachers and parents, and teacher education. Students who participated in the intervention were identified and referred based on previous behavioral disturbances within the classroom. After the play therapy intervention and completed research, Ray et al. (2004) analyzed and documented office referrals for behavioral disturbances and found a decrease in the amount of referrals among the children who participated in play therapy compared to their records prior to the intervention. In addition, final teacher interviews demonstrated positive changes in classroom behaviors among the children receiving the play therapy intervention. Ray et al. (2004) found support for the idea that play therapy is a developmentally appropriate intervention for elementary-aged children experiencing behavior problems. Interventions, like the one found in Ray et al.’s (2004) study, offers the ability to intervene with a child who may be struggling with behavior, in a safe and accessible environment that is either preventive or remedial in nature.

Elementary school children’s perception of play therapy in the school setting is an important aspect of the research on play therapy. Green and Christensen (2006) conducted a study to investigate elementary school children’s perceptions of play therapy when utilized by their school counselor. The participants indicated several factors related to the therapeutic relationship, emotional expressiveness, and creative play to which they attributed their successes in play therapy. The children described the process of change as being linked to their perceptions of how they: made better choices, experienced a decrease in anxiety, changed their misbehaviors, experienced an increase in self-worth, and noticed an increase in empathy for others.

In light of the positive implications of these studies, Shen (2008) researched the factors that prevented Texas elementary school counselors from implementing play therapy in their guidance curriculum. She found that school counselors apply play therapy techniques for many positive reasons, such as intervention advantages, rewarding counseling outcomes, and empirical data. However, the participants also indicated “counselor competencies” and “resource constraints” as reasons to avoid implementation of play therapy. Although more positive than negative reasons were specified, the negative reasons dominated the school counselors’ ability to confidently apply play therapy techniques. Shen’s results supported the idea that elementary school counselors’ lack of time and training, as well as the out-of-pocket costs associated with obtaining play therapy materials, contributed to their lack of confidence in practicing play therapy techniques. Play interventions that are easily implemented and time- and cost-effective are needed to address these barriers.

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Although this is a small rough cut of what was published, I encourage us all to continue our research on the effectiveness of play in schools and play therapy with children.

References
Beaty-O’Ferrall, M., Green, A. & Hanna, F. (2010). Classroom management strategies for difficult students: Promoting change through relationships. Middle School Journal, March, 4-11.
Blanco, P. J., & Ray, D. C. (2011). Play therapy in elementary schools: A best practice for improving academic achievement. Journal of Counseling & Development, 89, 235-243.
Chang, C. Y., Ritter, K. B., & Hays, D. G. (2005). Multicultural trends and toys in play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 14, 69-85.
Cochran, J. L., Cochran, N. H., Nordling, W. J., McAdam, A., & Miller, D. T. (2010). Two case studies of child-centered play therapy for children referred with highly disruptive behavior. International Journal of Play Therapy, 19, 130-143.
Dougherty, J., & Ray, D. (2007). Differential impact of play therapy on developmental levels of children. International Journal of Play Therapy, 16(1), 2-19.
Green, E. J., & Christensen, T. M. (2006). Elementary school children’s perceptions of play therapy in school settings. International Journal of Play Therapy, 15, 65-85.
Hinman, C. (2003). Multicultural considerations in the delivery of play therapy services. International Journal of Play Therapy, 12, 107-122.
Landreth, G. L., Ray, D. C., & Bratton, S. C. (2009). Play therapy in elementary school. Psychology in the School, 46, 281-289.
Lawver, T., & Blankenship, K. (2008). Play therapy: A case-based example of a nondirective approach. Psychiatry, 5, 24-28.
LeGoff, D. B. (2004). Use of LEGO© as a therapeutic medium for improving social competence. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(5), 557-571.
McAloney, K., & Stagnitti, K. (2009). Pretend play and social play: The concurrent validity of the child-initiated pretend play assessment. International Journal of Play Therapy, 18(2), 99-113.
Partin, T. C., Robertson, R. E., Maggin, D. M., Oliver, R. M., & Wehby, J. H. (2010). Using teacher praise and opportunities to respond to promote appropriate student behavior. Preventing School Failure, 54, 172-178.
Ray, D. C., Blanco, P. J., Sullivan, J. M., & Holliman, R. (2009). An exploratory study of child-centered play therapy with aggressive children. International Journal of Play Therapy, 18, 162-175.
Ray, D., Muro, J., & Schumann, B. (2004). Implementing play therapy in the schools lesson learned. International Journal of Play Therapy, 13, 79-100.
Shen, Y. (2008). Reasons for school counselors’ use or nonuse of play therapy: An exploratory study. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 3, 30-43.
Sink, C. A., Edwards, C. N., & Weir, S. J. (2007). Helping children transition from kindergarten to first grade. Professional School Counseling, 10, 233-237.
Trotter, K., & Landreth, G. (2003). A place for Bobo in play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 12, 117-139.

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