Play therapy is a form of therapy used primarily for children. That’s because children may not be able to process their own emotions or articulate problems to parents or other adults.
While it may look like an ordinary playtime, play therapy can be much more than that.
A trained therapist can use playtime to observe and gain insights into a child’s problems. The therapist can then help the child explore emotions and deal with unresolved trauma. Through play, children can learn new coping mechanisms and how to redirect inappropriate behaviors.
Play therapy is practiced by a variety of licensed mental health professionals, like psychologists and psychiatrists. It’s also practiced by behavioral and occupational therapists, physical therapists, and social workers.
In addition, the Association for Play Therapy offers specialized training programs and advanced credentials for licensed mental health professionals, school counselors, and school psychologists.
According to the professional organization Play Therapy International, up to 71 percent of children referred to play therapy may experience positive change.
While some children might start off with some hesitation, trust in the therapist tends to grow. As they become more comfortable and their bond strengthens, the child may become more creative or more verbal in their play.
Some of the potential benefits of play therapy are:
- taking more responsibility for certain behaviors
- developing coping strategies and creative problem-solving skills
- empathy and respect for others
- alleviation of anxiety
- learning to fully experience and express feelings
- stronger social skills
- stronger family relationships
Play therapy can also encourage use of language or improve fine and gross motor skills.
If your child has a diagnosed mental or physical illness, play therapy doesn’t replace medications or any other necessary treatments. Play therapy can be used alone or alongside other therapies.
Although people of all ages can benefit from play therapy, it’s typically used with children between the ages of 3 and 12. Play therapy may be helpful in a variety of circumstances, such as:
- facing medical procedures, chronic illness, or palliative care
- developmental delay or learning disabilities
- problem behaviors in school
- aggressive or angry behavior
- family issues, like divorce, separation, or death of a close family member
- natural disasters or traumatic events
- domestic violence, abuse, or neglect
- anxiety, depression, grief
- eating and toileting disorders
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
There’s a bit of a communication gap between children and adults. Depending on age and stage of development, children simply don’t have the language skills of adults. They may feel something, but in many cases, they either can’t express it to an adult or don’t have a trusted adult to express it to.
On the other end, adults can misinterpret or completely miss the child’s verbal and nonverbal cues.
Children learn to understand the world and their place in it through play. It’s where they’re free to act out their inner feelings and deepest emotions. Toys can act as symbols and take on greater meaning — if you know what to look for.
Since the child can’t adequately express themselves in the adult world, the therapist joins the child in their world, on their level.
As they play, the child may become less guarded and more apt to share their feelings. But they aren’t pressured. They’re allowed to do so in their own time and with their own method of communication.
Play therapy will differ depending on the therapist and the particular needs of the child. To begin, the therapist may want to observe the child at play. They may also want to conduct separate interviews with the child, parents, or teachers.
After a thorough assessment, the therapist will set some therapeutic goals, decide on what limits may be necessary, and formulate a plan for how to proceed.
Play therapists pay close attention to how a child handles being separated from the parent, how they play alone, and how they react when the parent returns.
Much can be revealed in how a child interacts with different types of toys and how their behavior changes from session to session. They may use play to act out fears and anxieties, as a soothing mechanism, or to heal and problem-solve.
Play therapists use these observations as a guide to the next steps. Each child is different, so therapy will be tailored to their individual needs. As therapy progresses, behaviors and goals can be reassessed.
At some point, the therapist may bring parents, siblings, or other family members into play therapy. This is known as filial therapy. It can help teach conflict resolution, promote healing, and improve family dynamics.
Sessions typically last 30 minutes to an hour and are held once a week or so. How many sessions are needed depends on the child and how well they respond to this type of therapy. Therapy can take place individually or in groups.
Play therapy can be directive or nondirective. In the directive approach, the therapist will take the lead by specifying the toys or games that’ll be used in the session. The therapist will guide the play with a specific goal in mind.
The nondirective approach is less structured. The child is able to choose toys and games as they see fit. They’re free to play in their own way with few instructions or interruptions. The therapist will observe closely and participate as appropriate.
Sessions must take place in an environment where the child feels safe and where there are few limitations. The therapist may use techniques that involve:
- creative visualization
- toy phones
- puppets, stuffed animals, and masks
- dolls, action figures
- arts and crafts
- water and sand play
- blocks and construction toys
- dance and creative movement
- musical play
Depending on the child and the situation, the therapist will either guide the child toward certain methods of play or let them choose for themselves. There are any number of ways the therapist can use play therapy to get to know the child and help them cope with their problems.
For example, the therapist might offer the child a dollhouse and some dolls, asking them to act out some problems they have at home. Or they might encourage the child to use hand puppets to recreate something they found stressful or frightening.
They might ask your child to tell a “once upon a time” story to see what the child might bring to light. Or they might read stories that solve a problem similar to your child’s. This is referred to as bibliotherapy.
It could be as simple as asking questions while your child is drawing or painting to try to gain insights into their thought process. Or play various games with the child to encourage problem-solving, cooperation, and social skills.
Play isn’t just for kids, and neither is play therapy. Teenagers and adults can also have a difficult time expressing their innermost feelings in words. Adults who may benefit from play therapy include those affected by:
- intellectual disabilities
- chronic illness, palliative care, and hospice care
- substance use
- trauma and physical abuse
- anger management issues
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- unresolved childhood issues
When working with adults, a therapist may use dramatic role-playing or sand-tray therapy to help you get in touch with feelings that are hard to talk about. These therapies can help you work on strategies for dealing with particular scenarios.
The very act of playing, whether it's games, arts and crafts, or music and dance, can help you relax and unwind from the stresses of everyday life.
Art therapy, music therapy, and movement can help reveal hidden traumas and promote healing. Under the guidance of an experienced therapist, play can be a valuable tool in getting you where you want to be.
Play therapy for adults may be used as a complement to other types of therapy and medications. As with children, the therapist will tailor play therapy to your specific needs.
Play therapy is a method of therapy that uses play to uncover and deal with psychological issues. It can be used on its own, particularly with children, or along with other therapies and medications.
To get the most out of play therapy, look for a licensed mental health professional experienced in this type of therapy. Your pediatrician or primary care doctor can make a referral.
You may also choose to search for a credentialed registered play therapist (RPT) or registered play therapist-supervisor (RPT-S) through the Association for Play Therapy.