What is Play Therapy?

Written by Kaitlin Cross, M.S., LPC

It’s National Play Therapy Week, so I am taking this opportunity to share with you how play therapy works and the benefits it can have on a child’s mental and emotional health.

What is Play Therapy?

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”

Simply put, play therapy focuses on helping the child through a fun, repetitive, age-appropriate, relational model. Play therapy is designed to help children address and resolve their problems in a “language” that is natural to them. Play therapy is most frequently used with children between the ages of 3 and 12. Play therapy works best when there is a safe relationship between the therapist and client, allowing the client to freely and naturally express both what delights and troubles them, without fear or judgment.

Why Play Therapy?

Playing is a child’s natural way of communicating and expressing feelings. In play therapy, the therapist utilizes what is most comfortable for children—play—to create an environment where children can freely express themselves and gain a sense of control over their world. Children have not yet developed the vocabulary and ability to fully express themselves verbally, so they are more likely to show us and act out their experiences.

Sometimes it can be helpful to think about it this way. It is not often that a 5-year-old will go out with their friend to sit and talk for an hour about their problems and feelings. That idea even sounds strange, right? Therefore, traditional talk therapy, which involves sitting across from someone, still, and talking for an hour, often does not work well with kids. Instead, children often benefit from being active, moving around, and using their imagination while interacting with their therapist. Utilizing a playroom and certain toys such as dolls, puppets, art supplies, board games, and other activities, can help children address their problems in a safe, therapeutic environment.

How Play Therapy Works

Since play is a child’s natural language, play therapy presents the child the opportunity to express their emotions symbolically, learn coping skills, and build their self-esteem. Play therapy helps a child develop responsibility, decision-making skills, and self-control in a safe and non-threatening manner. The therapist often follows a child’s lead and focuses on building a relationship in which the child feels seen, heard, and accepted.

Play Therapy usually happens in a room or office that is designed for play therapy, with a bunch of different toys that can help kids express and understand their thoughts, feelings, and relationships. Using these toys, the therapist and child play and talk together to help the child improve their mood, behavior, and/or relationships.

It can also be helpful for kids to be able to “play” through a problem rather than directly talk about it. For example, a child may want to play with the dolls during a session. Then as we are playing, she may have two dolls argue and fight. This can provide insight into what her relationships are like, what her perception is of those relationships, and what she might be struggling with. In turn, the dolls can then try out alternative ways of handling conflict, and model better ways of interacting with others. This allows her to be able to work through this challenge in a healthy way with the therapist. In addition, she can work through it without ever having to directly talk about it, which can feel much easier and safer for kids.

But Aren’t You Just Playing?

Understandably, there could be reservations about beginning play therapy. It may feel weird to invest time and money to have your child play with someone for 45 minutes. But just like the example above shows, it is not just playing – there is a lot of therapeutic work that goes into it and meets the child where they are.

The other benefit is that the child usually enjoys it more than other types of therapies. Other interventions may have worksheets/workbooks, homework, or conversations which may create frustration or resistance from the child to participate fully.

How Could Play Therapy Help My Child?

Play therapy is something to consider if your child has been having difficulties in their life, either socially, emotionally, or behaviorally. They may be anxious, withdrawn, or more aggressive and argumentative. Any of these can be warning signs that your child is struggling and starting play therapy may be helpful for them.

According to the Association for Play Therapy,  play therapy helps children:

  • Develop more successful strategies to deal with difficulties
  • Facilitate healing from stressful or traumatic experiences
  • Express thoughts and feelings in healthier ways
  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others
  • Learn new ways of thinking and behaving
  • Have empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others
  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family

What Do I Tell My Child About Play Therapy?

It is important to prepare your children for their first visit to the playroom and about starting therapy.

Here are a couple of YouTube videos that explain play therapy for children and parents:

Children may ask why they must attend therapy. It is natural for them to feel uncertainty or anxiety, especially with something new! You can tell your children they will be coming to play with a friendly helper in a room filled with toys and games! Offer them comfort and tell them you want them to have a safe and special place to play. This can be exciting news for a child who typically must share toys and attention with siblings!

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