Play Therapy and Social Constructivism: Seeing the World through a Young Person's Eyes

By Russo, Mary Frances | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Play Therapy and Social Constructivism: Seeing the World through a Young Person's Eyes


Russo, Mary Frances, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


* "I'll be the spider. I like my space and like to be in the dark." (Matt, age 12 years)

* "Everyone is killing me. And I'm killing me. And then it was all black." Tommy, age 5 years)

* "This is like sand of times." (Clarissa, age 5 years)

Young clients use their imagination and project their lives and worldview into their play. The statements printed above were made by young people as they projected their worlds into a sand-play therapy session. I am convinced that contextual, constructivist, and relational concepts are the keys to unlocking the mystery of effective counseling of young people with emotional and behavioral difficulties. When theories based on adult worldviews are applied to work in counseling young people, much of what ensues goes right over the young clients' heads--emotionally, socially, and cognitively! However, constructivist theory fits well within a systemic, developmental model used with young people. With an initial focus on play therapy, a counselor can expand to any number of theoretical perspectives and return to the themes presented in play. These themes represent the young client's narrative, or the story constructed to explain and describe life from the client's perspective. The perspectives of our young clients must remain in the forefront of our case conceptualization.

I use terms such as "young people," "young person," or "young clients" to refer to the children and adolescents who present to counseling. The reason I choose to refer to this age group collectively as young persons relates to a definition of adults' misuse of power and engagement in disrespectful practices toward young persons (Beaudoin & Taylor, 2004). Adultism is defined as disqualification and disregard for young people that results in feelings of self-denigration as well as replication of these behaviors and attitudes toward others who are perceived to be of lower status. Authors Beaudoin and Taylor summarized the effects of adultism as follows:

   Part of facing adultism is to recognize once again the value of
   diversity and not place individuals' worth on a hierarchy based on
   narrow criteria. It is recognizing that although young people may
   have less experience on a quantitative level (which is not
   necessarily true, as many underprivileged youth have seen much
   more of life than certain adults), on a qualitative level their
   views are simply different, creative, fresh, and inspiring. When
   young people are treated with respect and spoken to as other worthy
   human beings, they develop a sense of autonomy, responsibility,
   critical judgment, and articulate opinions. Respect becomes a lived
   experience that is easy to replicate. When they grow up in an
   adultist environment, they become resentful, fearful, or sneaky, or
   they simply lose their own sense of self and opinion to such an
   extent that their answer to most questions becomes "I don't know."
   (p. 215)

In light of the detrimental effects of adultist perspectives on youth, I believe that it is important to respect our young clients as individuals, to listen to their stories, and to respect their perspectives on their lives as depicted in their play. I am certain that most young clients have been subject to adultism throughout their lives, in some form or another. I wouldn't go so far as to say that their difficulties stem directly from the effects of discrimination on youth, but I will hypothesize that such discrimination has had serious, negative, compounding effects on the intra- and inter-personal difficulties young people experience in their day-to-day lives.

Introduction to Social-Constructivist Theory

To apply social constructivism to counseling young people, I will first define constructivism as the process by which individuals construct their personal knowledge about reality and, in so doing, create their own reality. Further, social constructivism focuses on language as the framework for experience and meaning making. …

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