Play Therapy

by | Jul 20, 2023 | Therapy

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is more than just playing with toys. It is a form of psychotherapy that uses play to assess, prevent, or treat psychosocial challenges experienced by the child. It can be used with adults, but most commonly it is used with children. Child’s play therapy is therapy conducted in the medium of play. It opens a window into the child’s inner world. It is therapeutic as it helps the child explore new ways of thinking and behaving to grow in a psychologically healthy manner.

Furthermore, It is typically targeted to children ages 3 to 11 who have social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties. Since play is a major way through which children demonstrate what is on their mind, whether they have words or not, a branch of therapy has developed around understanding children and their needs by observing their play and helping solve problems through play.

More on Play Therapy

Play can be a hands-on way for children to work on issues that are distressing to them. They can act out scenes, address specific problems, or create characters who share their emotions.

Children often act out their feelings with toys. A child who has lost a loved one may use puppets to portray a sad character who misses a friend. Or a child who has witnessed domestic violence may use a dollhouse to depict a child hiding under the bed because the adults are fighting.

Play therapy takes place in a comfortable playroom where few rules are imposed on a child. Allowing the child free and spontaneous expression of feelings. The therapist, trained in child psychology, usually has a selection of toys that children can use to act out their feelings. In addition, the therapist may ask children questions about the toys they’re using that reveal hidden worries and concerns.

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Moreover, the therapist and child set up a trusting relationship between them that has therapeutic value. Through play therapy, children learn to express their thoughts and feelings in appropriate ways, learn about the feelings of others, learn ways of controlling their own behavior, and learn how to solve problems they encounter.

Over time, the child typically comes to trust the play experience and the therapist, and a supportive relationship develops that fosters progress. In addition to watching how children play with objects in the playroom, therapists notice whether there are any changes in play from session to session. Highly repetitive play may be an important indicator of a problem that requires exploration.

Issues Play Therapy Addresses

First, play therapy is often used to help children process stressful life events such as relocation, hospitalization, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters. It can also be used to treat mental illness or behavioral problems. Here are some of the most common issues addressed in play therapy:

  • ADHD
  • Aggression
  • Anger management
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Depression
  • Divorce
  • Grief and loss
  • Physical and learning disabilities
  • School-related problems
  • Social issues
  • Trauma and crisis

In addition, depending on the type of play therapy that is being employed, the therapist may intervene at various points in the play to help resolve an issue. Or, the play therapist may observe the child as the child is helping a character work through their feelings. Play therapy can help children:

  • Become more responsible for their behaviors
  • Cultivate empathy and respect
  • Develop self-efficacy so they can feel more assured about their abilities
  • Identify and express emotions in a healthy way
  • Improve their interpersonal skills
  • Learn new social skills
  • Practice better problem-solving skills

Play Therapy near me

It is advisable to seek a therapist who has not just extensive training but experience using play therapy to treat children presenting with concerns similar to yours. As with all forms of therapy, it is important to find a play therapist with whom you feel comfortable. Look for someone with whom you can establish clarity of communication and a sense of good fit. It may be difficult to find a therapist specializing in play therapy near you and you may worry about finding the right help. But you can put your mind at rest that it will be an equally effective option to go for online therapy.

Online you will be able to choose the best therapist according to your needs. The therapist will attend to the unique challenges and opportunities that your child may be facing as a result of the trauma that they may have experienced.

How does play therapy work?

Parents play an important role in play therapy for children. The therapist usually starts by conducting an interview with one or both parents or caregivers to gather information about the child and learn what the presenting problem is.

The therapist may then interview the child separately and watch the child play on his or her own. Simply observing how parents and child interact at this juncture can provide the therapist with information about the parent-child relationship, the nature of the child’s attachment, and how well the child and parents manage a separation. The therapist may also ask the child and parent (or caregiver) to play together in order to observe how they interact. Based on the information and observations, the therapist discusses their findings with the parent and decides on an approach to the treatment of the child. Play therapy usually occurs in weekly sessions for an average of 20 sessions lasting 30 to 45 minutes each. The therapy will be tailored to the individual child and the nature of the problems they are struggling with.

Therapists may use one-way mirrors so that they can observe the child at play without being intrusive. They may also videotape one or more sessions for later review and detailed observation. Sometimes play therapy is more directed, and a therapist might engage with the child in a play situation.

For example, the therapist and child might role-play an experience the child finds overwhelmingly stressful, such as the first day of school, allowing the child to express their anxieties while discovering that their worst fears do not materialize. During the role-play, the child might be asked to play out a variety of scenarios and to come up with ideas for making them turn out as they wish.

Play therapy for autism

Play therapy is a highly effective approach for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum. It is beneficial for (Crenshaw & Stewart, 2014):

  • Increasing social skills
  • Improving emotional control
  • Decreasing negative emotions
  • Increasing verbal expression
  • Improving verbal activity
  • Strengthening relational connections
  • Increasing coping skills and adaptability

It is good to be aware that some characteristics of being on the autism spectrum can cause challenges in play therapy. Children with autism may struggle to form close bonds due to deficits in joint attention, which can damage the therapeutic bond and ultimately put a successful treatment outcome at risk. In addition, children may have a particular toy or game they prefer and refuse to play with another. A key element for play therapy for autism to succeed is unconditional positive regard.

Play therapy for ADHD

Play therapy in children with ADHD typically involves multiple techniques and has proven successful in helping them learn more adaptive coping skills, through doing rather than being told how to behave. Persons with ADHD moving into their adolescent years can find play therapy to be a helpful tool to express and relate through play.


Play creates moments of energy and insight and opportunities to motivate change. For children in therapy, it offers a mode of communication that does not rely on verbal skills and provides a safe environment to build a solid therapeutic bond that facilitates a path to a positive treatment outcome. Research has confirmed play therapy as a powerful tool in treating children, adolescents, and young adults and providing an opportunity for growth in communication, relationship-building skills, and therapeutic action.

Additionally, play therapy combines play, role-play, fantasy, and “behaving as-if” to create a nonconsequential environment that can be a window to age-relevant anxieties, concerns, emotional states, and trauma. It is a development-appropriate language for working with children and serves as a potential healing factor for clients experiencing contextual, developmental, and internal difficulties. Incorporating aspects of play into therapy with any age group — but especially children and young adults — can support clients’ development of life-affirming and life-enhancing skills, such as resilience, problem-solving, emotional awareness, and communication.

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