What Is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is primarily used for children. Since children may not have the verbal language for their feelings and experiences yet, play is how they best learn and communicate. Play is their natural way of expressing themselves and making sense of the world, which is why play therapy is so effective.

This article will discuss the benefits of play therapy, when and how it is used, and where to begin if you think play therapy would be a good fit for your child.

Analyzing His Way Of Playing

mmpile / Getty Images

Benefits of Play Therapy

There are numerous benefits of play therapy. Play therapy helps children:

  • Take responsibility for their own behaviors and develop more successful strategies
  • Find new, creative solutions to problems
  • Respect and accept themselves and others
  • Experience and express their emotions
  • Cultivate empathy and respect for others
  • Learn new social skills and relational skills
  • Develop self-efficacy (become more confident in their own abilities)

Play therapy may also encourage the use of language and the development of fine motor skills.

Is Play Therapy Effective?

Analyses of over 100 research studies show that play therapy has moderate to high positive effects. Additionally, play therapy is shown to be effective equally across ages, gender, and conditions being treated. The positive outcomes of play therapy are further amplified when there is an active parent involved in the child's treatment.

When Play Therapy Is Used

Play therapy has been shown to help children with a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems. Often times, problematic behaviors are a result of life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or natural disaster. What may appear as behavioral problems in children (e.g., acting out) is a result of having exhausted their coping mechanisms.

Play therapy is commonly utilized in treating people with a variety of mental health conditions, including:

Play Therapy for Adults

While play therapy is especially effective for children ages 3-12, teenagers and adults can also benefit from play therapy techniques. More recently, play therapy has been used with adults in mental health and other healthcare settings. Since play therapy utilizes creativity and imagination, the patient may feel a sense of safety and more distance from a traumatizing or threatening experience.

How Does Play Therapy Work?


Play therapy uses activities and materials (such as clay, blocks, puppets, action figures, dolls, finger paint, or other art supplies and toys) that allow a child to express themselves. While it may look like fun and games to an outsider, it is not. A trained play therapist uses play time to observe and gain insight about a child's internal conflicts, unresolved trauma, and relationships.

Using pretend characters, stories, or art, children have a safe outlet to work through and express their feelings and perception of the people, relationships, and events around them. Since the child leads the session, play helps them feel more confident in their abilities. Through play, they practice problem solving and develop new coping behaviors and social skills.

Types

There are two main types of play therapy:

  1. Directive play therapy: In directive play therapy, the therapist plays an active role by structuring and selecting play materials. They may encourage the child to use the props to enact "pretend" scenarios, express their feelings, or engage them in conversations about their present life situations.
  2. Nondirective play therapy: In nondirective play therapy, the therapist provides an encouraging environment for the child to select their own toys and materials. The child leads the play session where the therapist acts as an interested and non-judgemental bystander.

Techniques

There are many types of techniques that may be applied in a play therapy session. The therapist may choose different games and activities based on the problem that the child is struggling or their age and abilities.

Techniques may include a variety of approaches, including but not limited to:

  • Toy or object play such as using a ball, doll, baby, telephone, magic wand, blocks, medical, or sensory objects like water or sand
  • Creative arts such as clay, drawing, painting, dance/movement, or music
  • Storytelling or metaphors such as externalization play (creating a story or character that represents one of the child's problems) or bibliotherapy (discussion involving reading or other forms of literature)
  • Roleplay such as using costumes, masks, superheroes, or puppets
  • Imagery and fantasy such as guided imagery (visualizing positive, peaceful settings) or dollhouse play
  • Games that incorporate communication, self-control, cooperative, strategy, or chance games

Examples of Play Therapy

No matter the technique chosen to be used in play therapy, they are meant to help a child become aware of their feelings and learn to express them, manage anger, improve self-control, reduce fear, anxiety, and depression, increase empowerment, and enhance their problem-solving skills. Some examples of play therapy are:

  • The feeling word game: A therapist will ask a child to write down the names of feelings that a person their age might have. After writing down or drawing the feelings on pieces of paper, a therapist may tell a story about themselves that include many positive and negative feelings and ask the child to put poker chips on each of the feelings to demonstrate the different feelings expressed in the story, as well as different amounts of each feeling. The therapist may then repeat the exercise using a non-threatening story about the child. The child will then tell the next story for the therapist to put down poker chips. This process is repeated until the presenting problems are discussed.
  • Puppet to create a symbolic client: If a child is frightened, a therapist may show the child a puppet, tell the child that the puppet is frightened, and reassure it of its safety. Next, the therapist will ask the child to help with comforting the puppet. The puppet may become a safety object for the child throughout therapy. The therapist may ask questions to the puppet instead and have the child respond, which may feel less threatening to the child.
  • Broadcast news: In this activity, the therapist introduces a news program starring the therapist and child, who is the "expert guest" on the news show. In the scenario, the therapist will pretend to be a younger child calling into the news show to ask the expert questions (pertaining to the child's problems). The child then has to respond to the questions as the expert, thereby solving their own problems.

How to Get Started

To get started with play therapy, it's important to find a licensed mental health professional that has experience in play therapy. Play therapy requires extensive and specialized training and supervision. The Association for Play Therapy offers a directory of registered play therapists that have completed their training and are credentialed in play therapy.

It is also important to find a play therapist that you and your child feels completely comfortable with. Make sure that you research the therapist you are considering, ask for recommendations, and speak with the therapist about their approach before introducing them to your child.

Summary

Play therapy is a well-researched technique that can help children who may be struggling with mental health or behavioral issues. When children have exhausted their coping mechanisms, they may appear to be acting out. Play therapy addresses these issues by offering a healthy and safe outlet.

Through play, children use toys, props, art, and other mediums as their language to express their feelings, process their experiences, and learn new coping strategies and behaviors. Play therapy has many benefits including supporting healthy development and facilitating learning.

A Word From Verywell

No parent or caregiver wants to see their child struggle with mental health or emotional distress. A trained mental health professional in play therapy can provide a safe space to help your child with processing difficult feelings and learning healthier behaviors.

If you think your child may benefit from play therapy, speak with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician can assess your child and provide an appropriate referral to a licensed mental health therapist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a play therapist do?

    A play therapist is a trained mental health professional that uses toys or other mediums to provide a safe space for play. During play time, a therapist may act as a guide or simply be present and allow the child to direct their session. They may use the toys or other mediums to act out or create a story that helps to explain what they are experiencing.

  • What is the main focus of play therapy?

    The main focus for play therapy is for children to use play to process what they are feeling or experiencing. Through play therapy, a child can work through difficult feelings and develop their social and problem-solving skills.

  • How do you explain play therapy to a child?

    Talking to your child about going to play therapy can be difficult, but it is important to be positive and encouraging. Try to make it casual and informal to help reduce their anxiety or apprehension.

    Depending on the age of the child, you may explain it using age-appropriate language. For younger children, you may say that it is a special space where they will get to play with toys or play games with their new friend and learn about feelings.

    For older children, you may ask them what their expectations are, and explain that they have control over what they want to do or talk about with their counselor.

  • How do I become a play therapist?

    Becoming a play therapist requires earning a Master's or Doctorate degree in the mental health field, general and specialized clinical experience, supervision, and a mental health professional license.

    With additional specialized training, a mental health professional may earn the Registered Play Therapist (RPT), Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT-S) or School Based-Registered Play Therapist (SB-RPT) credentials from the Association for Play Therapy (APT).

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Association for Play Therapy. Play therapy makes a difference.

  2. American Counseling Association. Remembering play.

  3. American Psychological Association. Play therapy.

  4. Schaefer CE, Cangelosi D. Essential Play Therapy Techniques: Time-Tested Approaches. Guilford Publications; 2016.

  5. Hall TM, Kaduson HG, Schaefer CE. Fifteen effective play therapy techniquesProfessional Psychology: Research and Practice. 2002;33(6):515-522. doi: 10.1037/0735-7028.33.6.515